Stretch Your Small Business Dollars: Trade Show Banner Stands That Deliver!

Your company needs the visibility of a trade show to make industry contacts and introduce new products. But professional trade show displays are an expensive investment for any small business, especially in these tough economic times. And the last thing you want is to attend a trade show with an outdated booth. If you can’t afford a new trade show display, consider enhancing an existing booth with a banner stand. Trade shows are a cost-effective, creative way to attract attention and stretch your dollars. And with proper care, your trade show banner stand can last for many years to come.

Personalize your banner stand: choosing the right style for your small business is crucial.
Available in a variety of materials, colors, and sizes, a vibrant one will add a punch to your next trade show. Before purchasing it, determine how and where you plan to use it. Will you be using it to introduce a new product? Is your goal to enhance brand awareness and attract attention? Or do you want to emphasize a company logo and contact information? Will you be using the stand primarily for indoor displays or will it also need to be used outside? Keep this goal and location in mind when selecting your banner stand.

Here are some different types of banner stands:
* Retractable or ‘Roll-up’ Banner Stands – Generally considered the easiest to use and transport, they are extremely popular. Similar to a window shade, the banner is stored in the base of the stand and rolls up for display.
* L Banner Stands – An ‘L’ shaped frame holds and supports the banner, with the bottom of the ‘L’ resting on the floor. The banner is attached with clips at the top and bottom.
* X Banner Stands – An ‘X’ shaped frame holds and supports the banner. Three legs add stability, and the banner can be attached with clips in four places.
* Telescopic or Poll ones- These stands include a telescoping poll that adjusts to fit the size of your banner. A great investment if you plan on swapping out different sized banners.
* Motorized or Scrolling ones- If you are looking to add extra flair and drama to your display, these stands are for you! These stands mount either at the floor or ceiling, and continually scroll your graphics.
* Outdoor ones- Constructed specifically for outdoor events from heavy-duty, durable materials. A hollow stand base can be filled with sand to anchor the stand against unexpected high winds.

Keep costs low: Be sure to recycle it.
It is a durable, long-term investment that will last for years. If you are in the market for it, consider purchasing one second-hand or from a wholesale company, rather than buying one new. You’ll save on costs, and can easily purchase different graphics for the stand. Likewise, if you have several of them and no longer need to use all of them or are looking to upgrade, consider selling one locally to another company or back to a wholesaler.

Think long-term: Use your banner stand after the trade show.

When the trade show concludes, don’t let your banner stand gather dust. They are a great way to add functionality to small store or business space. Turn an unused store corner into a retail display or add punch to your storefront at a shopping mall.

Display your banner stand for extra professionalism at your next business meeting or conference. When thinking about long-term uses, consider where your target audience is likely to be found. Does your target audience frequent the local movie theater, major sporting arenas or pass through a nearby hotel lobby? These are all ideal locations to attract attention and promote your company with a colorful banner stand display.

How to Start a Successful Business 1, 2, 3 – Part 5 of 6

As I know this is a rather lengthy article, I began trying to cut it down to spare my readers from utter boredom! However, there is a lot of good information listed here, and I feel it is important you have as much information in one shot, especially with these topics. In this article we will be discussing: 1. How to bring inventions and business ideas to the marketplace; 2. Filing for patents; and 3. Pricing your products and inventions for the marketplace.

Let’s get started!

As I started to write this article, I had a flashback… Back to the past, when when I first started working in the web design business, many years ago. Little did I know what a life-altering experience it would be for me, and how it would completely reshape my own business future. During the early ’90s, when the Internet was still in its infancy, we (meaning myself, my then-soon-to-be-husband, and our core group of geeks and crazies) were making websites! Big, funny looking, creative, clunky-yet-exciting, fun, and promising websites that were… by today’s standards… pretty scary looking! Big giant text boxes, giant buttons, images and tons of text links filled the 15″ barely color screen. There were no mentors to look to or gurus to listen to. It was the western frontier! I remember when we all learned how to make this cutting-edge creation known as “the an animated.GIF!” Long before the days of Flash integration or a slew of other technologies, we had parted the Red Sea! The Internet was the wave of the future and the future had arrived!

Back in the day, people from all walks of life would line up in droves at our Internet provider location – our “ISP” – with some of the craziest ideas and “inventions” I had ever seen in my life. When a customer wanted a website built, I would excitedly ask them, “do you have a sketch or idea of what you would like designed?” Proudly, out would come the infamous wrinkled napkin from the previous day’s lunch, filled with crazy doodles, drawings and food stains. THAT was their business plan – their blueprint as it were. They say necessity is the mother of invention and I knew this “napkin thing” wasn’t gonna work for long. Alas, I was introduced to this new “great new program” new to the marketplace, back in the day. Something called Quark Xpress was all the rave! You could draw cool lines and squares and make flow charts and even create newsletters! Wow. How exciting it was. The rest was history for our group; creating layouts and websites, and teaching people the finer points of business creation and management suddenly became a snap. Computer technology was amazing!

Those were fun days in simpler times. But, the Internet has changed dramatically since then, and creating anything has changed form dramatically. Today, when someone has an idea for an invention or a business, there is far more at stake than in yesteryear. Gone are the days of handshake deals, where your word was your merit badge of honor. Unfortunately, this is a day of theft, fraud and striving to protect what you’ve worked so hard to accomplish. With that said, let’s talk about how you as an entrepreneur can protect your inventions, your ideas and your business, and bring them to the marketplace.

1. Bringing Your Inventions and Business Ideas to the Marketplace: First you must define a few things:

  • You must define your product: What is it? Is it a product or a service? Do you know the difference? That may sound silly, but you’d be surprised at how the overlap.
  • You must define your business model: What are you selling? Goods? Services? Both?
  • You must define your market: Who is your target audience or purchasing demographic?
  • You must define your market longevity: Will this product remain popular within a year? Five year? Twenty years? It is a passing fancy? Does it have potential to grow into something prosperous? Does it have the potential to go mass market?
  • You must definite your competition: How long have they been around? What makes them better or worse than you? Be honest with yourself in your assessment.

Then address these questions and issues:

  • Understanding your own product/service: If my mother can’t understand it, will the product or service actually sell? Don’t laugh at this concept! You must think about who the has spending dollars in your target market. What is their education level? What is their technology level? What are their needs?
  • Refining and streamlining what you have: You have to work out all the kinks… and there are always kinks! What can I do to refine, simplify or streamline my invention or product?
  • Protect Protect Protect! Do you have help protecting your assets? (In legal-eze it’s referred to as the C.Y.A. method or “Cover Your Assets” method. LOL: ) Do you have an attorney or legal service who can assist you?
  • Get a Marketing Plan, Man! Am I prepared to conduct market research? Do I have a marketing plan in place? Do I need to learn about marketing first? Do I know the current trends? Do I have someone I can hire to help me?

2. Filing Copyrights, Trademarks and Patents: How does a trademark differ from a copyright or patent? Many people are confused over the differences, which is very understandable because it’s confusing! In short, a copyright protects original works of expression such as novels and books, graphic and/or fine art, music, photography, software, video, cinema, choreography, and a whole bunch of other works. The copyright does prevent others from copying, stealing or commercially exploiting the artist or creator’s work. But, copyright doesn’t necessarily protect everything. For example: titles, names, phrases, even aspects of art may not be covered, depending on the nature of the work and what it involves. This is where a trademark comes in to play. A trademark protects distinctive, what I’ll coin, “commercial-esque” creations such as names, phrases, specially used words, logos, symbols, slogans, or any anything used to identify and distinguish products or services in the marketplace. Make a mental note that U.S. protections are different than global protections and involve even greater detail on a worldwide stage.

Now, there are many cases where a copyright and a trademark will be used together to protect different aspects of a particular product. For example, a copyright will protect the artistic creation of a graphic or logo, used to identify a particular business or company, while the trademark serves to stop others from illegally using it in the marketplace (illegally, meaning without the express permission of the company or creators). This approach is commonly used by advertising agencies and creatives. So in short, copyright helps identify and lock in the expression and the brand, the trademark serves to protect it by blocking others from infringing on it. Phew! Hope that explains it, in a nutshell!

The Difference Between a Trademark and a Patent: Here’s a whole other kettle of fish to think about. Patents protect specific inventions. For example, Joe invents a new type of socket wrench that is amazing, incredibly easy to use, and can remove any old socket head from any socket. Joe is going to be a happy camper with this invention. Not only can he block others from making, selling, or using his fabulous socket wrench invention, but he may also be able to obtain monopoly rights, preventing others from making commercial use of his invention, and that patent may last for 15 or 20 years.

Generally, patents and trademarks don’t overlap exactly the same way as copyrights and trademarks do. Patents are a slightly different animal with their own set of issues and conditions. When it comes to a unique product design or invention, you are protecting a “thing” versus a “design,” which has other legal ramifications such as functionality, style, materials used, etc.

Hiring a Patent Attorney or Patent Service: If you have invented a product, I highly recommend you find a good patent attorney. There are specialists in the field that know exactly how it all works, and what exactly is involved. There are also many online services available. My service of choice for these important necessities is LegalZoom (LegalZoom.com). I’ve used them before and I am very pleased with their service and performance. They are cost effective and I found them incredibly easy to deal with. There are all kinds of services available, either online, or you can even consult your local yellow pages directory, if you wish to seek someone local and in person. You may also go directly to the U.S. government websites for details, but I don’t recommend going directly because it is very complicated and confusing. If you do one tiny thing wrong, you have to start over from the beginning, which isn’t fun. When it comes to your creations, don’t skimp on what is important to you. You’ve worked too hard to get there, so make sure to protect your work properly. You’ll be very glad you did!

3. Properly Pricing Your Invention or Services for the Market: There isn’t enough room in this article to fully address the details that go into pricing goods for the marketplace. It is, however, very challenging for anyone in business. Setting the magic price on something can prove to be a bit overwhelming. Whether you’re setting prices for the first time, raising or lowering existing prices, or trying to keep up with varying economic trends, it can be difficult. Overprice your products or services and you risk losing business to competitors. Underprice it and you may drastically hurt your bottom line. What to do? I’ll try to give it to you in a nutshell:

You can’t base everything off of price alone, especially services: Yes, there is the competition. And yes, you need to keep prices lower in challenging economic times. However, “cheapest” rarely means “best.” I have come to find you usually get what you pay for. In many cases, rock bottom prices usually means rock bottom service. For example, my local auto mechanic is an awesome guy. He is not the cheapest or the most expensive mechanic in our local area. What he is, is fabulous. He’s local, he’s fair, he’s reliable, and he’s available. If I need help with my car, he shows me everything he’s doing. He uses the best parts and his entire staff takes great pride in their work. I never have to second-guess anything and that matters a lot to me.

Now, let’s address purchasing vs. selling products: Pricing services and products are very different. Why? Because, using my mechanic as the example, he is not a reproduced “thing.” He’s not a razor blade, or a 9-volt battery, or a package of paper towels. I can purchase those things anywhere at a super discounted rate, in bulk. With those everyday products such as batteries, razor blades, food, clothing, cleaning products, etc., I am going to price match and look for the best bargains for my household. After all, Windex window washing liquid is pretty much the same product anywhere it’s purchased. It’s a pre-fab “thing” being purchased; not a person. With that in mind, you have to price products for a bigger market.

Your bottom business dollar for pricing products: In order to set a good product price, you will need to do the homework on your manufacturing or development costs. What is your product (or products)? Are you the manufacturer of your product(s)? What does it cost to produce it? Can you afford to offer price matching? Will you offer wholesale pricing to distributors? What is your overhead? How much do you need to net out per item? There are countless programs such as QuickBooks and other software applications to assist you. If that isn’t an option for you, don’t be afraid to consult your financial advisor or your CPA to help you do the math. You may be surprised at how quickly you will find that right price with a little guidance. That person can help diffuse the fear out of the situation.

Don’t sacrifice quality if at all possible: This can be tough during inflationary times for many companies. If you produce a food or beverage product that uses, well say, sugar or flour, and those costs have risen dramatically, that affects your expenses and your earnings. But here is the hook: Switch that ingredient to something inferior and your customers will know it. Certain things cannot be faked, so beware of quality cutting. That can be a real killer.

Don’t be afraid to offer discounts and coupons, but do so intelligently: I will use the example of a popular restaurant, especially out here in California, T.G.I.Fridays. Whether you personally like this restaurant or not, I consider this to be a role-model company, to be watched and admired, at least from a business and marketing perspective. Restaurants are definitely a service business, but they also happen to product seller. In fact, restaurants in general, are one of the few business models that are both services and product providers.

So back to our T.G I. Friday’s example…. This restaurant has bent over backwards to help all kinds of communities that are struggling with a difficult economy (as of this writing). They have more discounts and bargains than just about any company I’ve ever seen. They have their “2 for $20” deal, which is a full meal-for-two with all the trimmings, including appetizer and dessert; they offer boat loads of “buy-one-get-one-free” deals; they offer a fantastic discounted Happy Hour, and the food is pretty darned good quality for what it is. It is not a five-star resort experience, but is a successful mainstream marketplace. The Friday’s restaurants. out here in Southern California anyway, are almost always stand-room-only, even during tough economic times. This company knows its market, its current and future market, its product line, and its bottom line. They know how to drive in the traffic, offer the good deals, provide an appetizing menu, and they do it right. There are plenty of large food chains floating around out there, who would never follow this philosophy, and their restaurants are dying on the vine (again, as of this writing).

There is an art, a science and a balance to building a successful business. Get too greedy and you will fail. Become too giving and you give the store away. Become complacent or cut too many corners and your sales will be drab. For those of us who love the art of the deal – the excellence of business creation – it’s an ongoing journey to strive for that perfect hit – that perfect home run.

Stay tuned for our last article of this series where we will discuss: raising capital, buying a franchise, and then briefly recapping all the topics from this article series.

How to Go About Choosing Software for Your Small Business

One of the biggest decisions a small business has to make is investing in the right software solutions. Technology is a key asset for any-sized business; day-to-day operations are dependent on it. In today’s competitive business landscape, it has become essential for small businesses to leverage technology – software solutions in particular – to maximize productivity and keep operational expenses low. Before start-ups can leverage technology, they must first purchase or acquire the right software solutions to meet the demands of their business. This task is not doubt an intensive one requiring time and effort. But it doesn’t have to drive you up the wall.

Fix your budget

As a small business, it’s natural that budget would be your first concern. You will need to decide what part of your total budget can be committed towards purchase of software. Will you be able to afford a large up-front payment or do you prefer to make monthly payments? Once you set your budget, you can explore sources of funding as well as payment arrangements.

Determine your needs

The solution to any business problem starts with identifying needs. What value will the certain software solution deliver to your business? What software is good-to-have but not entirely necessary for your line of work? These are some decisions you need to make. The software needs of a small freight trucking business may be different from that of a content marketing start-up. By understanding your priorities and examining the processes you currently have in place and expect to include in the future, you can chalk out a list of key requirements. As part of this process, you will also be identifying the key areas within your business where software solutions can be deployed.

Here is a look at some of the common areas of business where the use of software for daily operations becomes necessary:

Accounting: Accounting and book-keeping are rather mundane tasks that you’d rather have a software product to help you with! On a serious note, it is imperative that your small business tracks finances efficiently and without any errors. If you need a centralized accounting and bookkeeping system from which you can pull tax or expenses data quickly, a well-rated accounting software is the way to go.

Desktop accounting software for small businesses

1. AccountEdge Pro 2012

Pros: Fully-featured, easy to use, a good choice for multi-user support

Cons: Importing data from other programs is not easy

2. Intuit QuickBooks 2012

Pros: A good choice for accounting newbies, easy set-up, a convenient calendar view, allows sharing of custom report templates

Cons: A lack of inventory features, limited user support

Some online and SaaS (software as a service) accounting options

1. Freshbooks

Pros: Helps in document and project management, offers several add-ons

Cons: Little online help, can get expensive for multiple users (starts out free and goes up to $149 per month)

2. Outright

Pros: Available for free, easy interface

Cons: Does not support electronic tax payments or state tax tracking

3. Kashoo

Pros: Available free (allows a maximum of 20 transactions a month), excellent interface

Cons: Does not offer item-tracking or US payroll

Inventory management: If timely and efficient order fulfillment is the difference between gaining and losing customers, you will need assistance from a top-notch inventory management software. It will help you track and control inventory and handle orders, sales, purchases and deliveries.

Free inventory management software:

1. Pos Maid

Pros: Simple to build inventory database, automatic stock report generation, good customer service

Cons: none as far as small businesses go

2. inFlow Inventory

Pros: Easy to use, excellent linking of inventory with sales and purchase

Cons: Creation of custom documents is not as easy as it can be

Ecommerce software: If you are a B2B or B2C ecommerce business, you may want to invest in software applications that allow you to sell your offerings and conduct business online. The simplest shopping cart software, for instance, will serve as a real-world order form that allows convenient sale-purchase over the internet. There are different kinds of shopping cart software you can choose from, so you may want to consider the pros and cons of each before zeroing in on one. You have the option to buy or lease software; you can also choose open-source applications that have a strong developer community.

Popular open source ecommerce platforms:

1. Magento

Pros: Market leader, highly scalable, built-in SEO, free

Cons: Needs efficient and careful management (especially as your online store grows)

2. osCommerce

Pros: Easy to install and use, free, top-notch front-end features, simplified product management

Cons: Not easily customizable, frustrating back-end

3. Zen Cart

Pros: Free, excellent product/service management, several free and paid templates

Cons: Reporting is too basic, add-on integration is not easy

Social media management software: If your social media presence is an important sales driver and you don’t have the time or the resources to offer real-time responses, investing in social conversation software like Hootsuite and Sprout Social makes sense. On the other hand, if you want to be an active social media player by understanding the interests and spheres of influence of social media participants, social influencer software like Klout could be useful. For creating customized Facebook applications and promotions on YouTube and other social media channels, opt for social marketing software.

1. HootSuite

Pros: Easy to set up columns and search by list, hashtag, handle, etc; provides basic Facebook and Twitter analytics, easy to schedule tweets

Cons: Nothing to speak of, very handy for small businesses

2. VerticalResponse

Pros: Integrates email and social media very well, ideal for less tech-savvy business owners

Cons: More tech-savvy business owners may prefer something less basic

3. Sprout Social

Pros: Easy user interface, useful feedback

Cons: Small business plan is available for $39 per month and supports 20 profiles

Logistics software: If you need to handle multiple shipping partners for your online import-export business, you can add a good logistics software to the list. Do a bit of research to identify the best paid and open source logistics software in the market.

Data analysis software: If your work involves extracting, analyzing and manipulating data on a regular basis, a data analysis software can help. The software is also useful to handle massive amounts of data – you can accumulate and organize it easily, efficiently and quickly. Some of the big data pools you may need to handle in a well-organized manner include employee information, product information and customer information. The right CRM or HR software can help you accomplish this and stay on top of your business.

Project management software: Managing multiple projects takes more than just a highly-competent project manager; it requires clearly defined objectives and steps of action from planning to implementation. Project management software can provide a roadmap, help manage risks and define goals/work for every member of the project team.

Project management software can help with milestones, calendars, scheduling and tasks. It can also provide chat and forum support by enabling online communication between teams, vendors and freelancers.

Tips on choosing project management software:

  • It must fit your business and allow business systems to integrate
  • Must be flexible and scalable, supporting growth and multiple users
  • Must streamline operations and reduce costs
  • Buy a subscription to web-based project management software – you can pay by the month or year as opposed to an outright purchase.
  • Opt for business project management software packages that offer free 15-day or one month trials. This can help you make an informed decision

Is there a solution for your needs?

Depending on the niche you operate in, you will have to research to determine if there actually exists a software solution for your specific need(s). Even if there isn’t one that completely addresses your niche-specific requirement, can it be modified by the provider or even at your end? Do you have the means to get a custom software system/application designed from scratch? These are some of the questions that need answering.

Making an informed decision

The decision-making process must involve participation from not just you – the business owner – but also employees who will be using the product. A product rating system based on appropriate criteria can help you arrive at an informed choice. Some helpful tips in this regard are:

  • Opting for product demonstrations without identifying your requirements
  • Starting without a shortlist of products and adopting a “let’s see how we go” attitude
  • Testing the software product without a scenario
  • Getting swayed by any extra or added functionality that is not really a critical requirement

It goes without saying that you should give due attention to product ratings (from customer reviews), product support and vendor reputation before committing your small business dollars and time.