Tag Archive: Small Business Ideas

Using Instant Messaging for Business

Using Instant Messaging for Business

Here’s the scene: A couple dozen professionals at a big advertising agency quietly type away at computer screens near each other, in an open room devoid of office walls and partitions.

An occasional laugh punctuates the silence. But no one is talking. They are communicating with one another almost exclusively through instant messaging (IM).

“When I’m visiting this firm, I can’t help but notice this [lack of people talking]. Seems odd to an outsider, but this is now pretty much their corporate culture,” says Helen Chan, analyst for The Yankee Group, a US-based technology research group, who has friends at the agency.

A technology designed initially for one-on-one personal chats has reached the workplace. Many business people are choosing text-based Instant Messaging over phone calls and email. They prefer its immediacy and efficiency in getting real-time information from partners, suppliers and colleagues working remotely.

Instant messaging is essentially the text version of a phone call. At businesses large and small, more and more people are using it to communicate. For many, it serves as a backstop for e-mail problems and other emergencies — witness the spikes in usage after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Wall Street Journal notes that more than 100 million people are now sending instant messages. In a report, “IM: The Sleeping Giant,” technology consultant Gartner Group predicts that by 2005, instant messaging will surpass email as the primary online communications tool.

That said, IM will benefit businesses that work in teams or on projects more than it will many retailers, independent professionals and others. That’s because IM enhances collaboration, but does not lend itself to opening new relationships. However, aside from the opportunities for time and cost savings, there are risks and downsides to its use.

Whether you’re a business owner or an avid IM user, or both, here are 10 instant messaging do’s and don’ts.

1. Do adopt a user policy for instant messaging. If you’re an owner, your employees need to know whether you view instant messaging as an appropriate vehicle to communicate with, say, customers or business partners. Any policy should contain at least general guidelines for its use. You may not think this is important — unless you know the story about the hedge fund manager who caused a major commotion by allegedly using IM to spread inaccurate rumours about a publicly traded software company. (Word got out, the software company’s stock plunged, and the hedge fund manager and his company got into some serious trouble.)

2. Don’t use instant messaging to communicate confidential or sensitive information. Take a lesson from the above example. If your company is in the business of providing professional advice regarding stocks, finances, medicine or law, chances are it’s not smart to do so through instant messaging. IM is better suited to quick information about project status, meeting times, or a person’s whereabouts.

3. Do organise your contact lists to separate business contacts from family and friends. Make sure your employees do the same. Eliminate even the remote possibility that a social contact could be included in a business chat with a partner or customer — or vice versa. MSN Messenger[link] lets you organise your contacts carefully.

4. Don’t allow excessive personal messaging at work. Yes, you make personal phone calls at work, send personal emails, and allow your employees to do the same. But you encourage them to keep it to a minimum and (hopefully) do the same yourself. For instant messaging go even further. Urge that personal chats be done during breaks or the lunch hour — or that the chats generate new customers or revenue to the business.

5. Do be aware that instant messages can be saved. You may think IM is great because you can let your guard down, make bold statements, chastise a boss, employee or co-worker, and have it all wiped away from the record when you are done. What you aren’t realising is that one of the parties to your conversation can copy and paste the entire chat onto a notepad or Word document. Some IM services allow you to archive entire messages. Be careful what you say, just like you would in an email.

6. Don’t compromise your company’s liability, or your own reputation. The courts may still be figuring out where instant messages stand in terms of libel, defamation and other legal considerations. It’s likely that any statements you make about other people, your company or other companies probably aren’t going to land you in court. But they could damage your reputation or credibility. Be careful what you say.

7. Do be aware of virus infections and related security risks. Most IM services allow you to transfer files with your messages. Alexis D. Gutzman, an author and eBusiness consultant, says her recent research for a book found that IM file attachments carrying viruses penetrate firewalls more easily than email attachments. “Instant messages [carrying viruses] will run and dip into a firewall until they find an opening,” she says. You’d be wise to learn more about the quality of your own firewall protection, to decide whether or not to restrict transferring files through IM.

8. Don’t share personal data or information through IM. Even if you have the utmost trust in the person or people you are messaging, including personal information you’d rather keep confidential (like a phone number) is not a good idea. That’s because the text of your chat is relayed through a server en route to your contact. “If anyone is on the connection and can see that traffic, they can see the personal information,” says Chris Mitchell, lead program manager with MSN Messenger. Not likely, perhaps. But it’s better to send such info through an encrypted email, or not at all.

9. Do keep your instant messages simple and to the point, and know when to say goodbye. How you should use IM is hard to stipulate. Kneko Burney, director of eBusiness research at Cahners In-Stat Group, prefers it simply for seeing if a colleague is at his or her desk, available for an in-person or telephone call. “It’s like peeking into someone’s office.” Gutzman, on the other hand, sees IM as a way to do quick research and get fast information from consultants and even lawyers. She recently used IM in researching a book, saving entire messages in her personal archives. Both agree, however, that you must limit your inquiry, get to the point right away, and avoid unnecessary blather. “With instant messaging, you don’t need a lot of pleasantries,” Gutzman says. “I pretty much can say, ‘How’s it going?’ and then get on with my question.”

10. Don’t confuse your contacts with a misleading user name or status. IM user names, like email user names, should be consistent throughout your company. And users should do the courtesy of updating their status throughout the day, so contacts know whether they are available for messages.

Estimating Tips for Your Start-up Costs

Estimating Tips for Your Start-up CostsEstimating Tips for Your Start-up Costs

Estimating Tips for Your Start-up Costs. Before you take out a second mortgage, use these rules to figure out the realistic costs of setting up a business.

Have a Solid Plan — Then Change It

Most business start-up stories say that you have to have a business plan. And you do. But that’s not the beginning and end of figuring out your start-up costs.

Jeff Shuman, who directs entrepreneurial studies at Bentley College, says, “The conventional wisdom is that an entrepreneur sees an opportunity, comes up with a business plan to capitalise on it, determines the capital that needs to be raised, raises the capital and then applies it to building the business described in the business plan.”

There’s one major problem with that model, says Shuman. It all hinges on getting the business right the first time, and that doesn’t often happen. “In reality, it’s likely that some of your initial assumptions are pretty good and others aren’t going to be worth the paper they’re written on,” he says.

Shuman and others say that figuring out your start-up costs means regularly reviewing your assumptions and changing your initial model. Writing a plan is good because it forces you to write down everything you are going to need to start your business.

But that initial plan is likely to change repeatedly as you learn new things and incorporate them into the plan.

Be Willing to Pull Back

It’s tempting to add up everything you need for the full-fledged business you imagine, and decide it’s what you need to start out.

But pulling back and looking for a smaller model can give you a way to get started while also saving money. Shuman uses the example of someone who calculates the total cost of starting a retail business in a local shopping centre.

“You could start that way and write a business plan based on that amount,” he says. “But maybe you’d be better off renting a stand and testing what the demand is for your products at that location.” Estimating Tips for Your Start-up Costs

This consumer testing reduces your initial start-up costs. The result is that the initial cycle of your business is dedicated not so much to generating profits as to generating information. “With this, you can fund your business on a cycle-by-cycle basis,” Shuman says. “When you go for the second cycle and for expanding your business, the numbers are now based not on focus groups or surveys but on real-world experience.”

Calculate Prices and Time Correctly

Calculating your initial cash flow is part of figuring out your start-up costs. It’s an area where businesses are sometimes less optimistic than they should be. “Small business owners may under-price their product or service, thinking they have to come in at the lowest price point to compete,” says Barbara Bird, who chairs the business management program at an American university. “They don’t necessarily need to do that.” Estimating Tips for Your Start-up Costs

Correctly Estimate Your Start-up Time

Yes, when beginning a business, time can be money. Let’s say you’re going to have fixed costs such as a monthly lease. If you have to make improvements to a space before you can actually open for business, those fixed costs are going to be additional start-up costs until you can actually open for business. I’ve watched many entrepreneurs draw up a timeline for their ventures and get tripped up on the safety and inspection requirements imposed by local agencies.

For that reason, I think one of the first places a prospective new business owner should go is to the local government planning or license department. Construction permits and inspections can push a prospective opening date back by months. If you fail to take into account the cost of this time, you could be short of working capital right at the start. Estimating Tips for Your Start-up Costs

Be Realistic About the Cost of Money

Many small business owners finance their ventures by running up big balances on their personal credit cards. Others tap the equity in their homes.

But self-financing isn’t a practical option for larger ventures. Tom Emerson, who directs the entrepreneurship centre at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says start-ups should figure in the cost of capital when determining initial expenses and cash flow. “The cost is usually based on what the interest would be, were that cash invested in something with similar risk on the market” Emerson says. “It’s usually a figure that is a few percentage points or more above the prime rate.” Estimating Tips for Your Start-up Costs

10 Financial Yardsticks for Your Small Business by Tim Jacquet

10 Financial Yardsticks for Your Small Business by Tim Jacquet.

10 Financial Yardsticks for Your Small Business by Tim Jacquet. Time and again, accountants and consultants who specialize in small businesses say that such enterprises don’t pay enough attention to cash flow. That’s the measure of how much money you really have in the business.

Be Wary of Big Contracts

“Small entrepreneurs wind up taking big orders that get them in trouble,” says Ronald Lowy, who heads a college business administration department. “They want the big contract, but they’re not getting enough money at the front end of it and they don’t have the cash reserves to pay workers and other bills while they’re waiting to get paid themselves. They might show a profit on an accrual basis, but from a cash-flow standpoint, they don’t.”

Judith Dacey, a certified public accountant, calls a cash-flow statement “probably the most important thing in telling you if your business is on or off target.” As an example she describes how board members of a non-profit group were not examining their cash-flow statements.

“They were hiring people and spending money on membership campaigns, and doing all of these things based on money they thought they had from looking at the profit-and-loss (P&L) statements,” Dacey says. “They didn’t realize that the profit-and-loss statement was an accrual statement, which basically means you are including paper promises of payments to come, not money that you have in the bank.”

The non-profit board became aware of the difficulty only when the organization bounced a check. Employees had to be laid off, and belts were tightened. “That could have been avoided if they’d seen the cash-flow statements,” Dacey says. “A cash-flow statement tells you here’s the cash that has actually come in and that you can work with.”

A statement of cash flow starts with the bottom of your profit and loss statement — the line that shows your net income. Several adjustments are made to that number. The details are a little complex but a good accounting program that does a P&L and a balance sheet will also calculate this statement for you.

Tracking the Big 10

If you’ve established a way to track cash flow, then you can go on to organize and track 10 financials for your business. That’s a big list, but don’t panic: As with profit and loss statements, you can take advantage of software programs to automate tracking for many of the following:

Your Assets

Tracking your equipment, furniture, real estate and other holdings should be easy. But to have a true idea of the value of your business, you also have to track changes in the value of those assets. More than one small business has found itself located on a piece of land that’s worth more than the business itself. Similarly, you also will want to track the declining value of assets such as computers and office furniture.

Your Liabilities

On the face of it, this is easy — liabilities are what you owe. But what you owe isn’t always as obvious as a bill from your landlord. Payroll taxes are a liability that depend on the size of your payroll. Loans are a clear liability, but in repaying them you’ll want to be able to track how much of a payment is applied against principal and interest.

What does it Cost You to Produce What You Sell?

If you’re buying a finished item for resale, this is relatively easy. It’s trickier if you have to calculate all the factors, such as labor, that go into manufacturing a product.

What’s it Costing You to Sell What You Sell?

Advertising, marketing, labor, storage and the catch-all category of overhead — it’s useful to know how much it costs you to get a product sold as well as what it costs you to create it.

What’s Your Gross Profit Margin?

This is calculated by dividing your total sales into your gross profit. If your gross profit margin is staying consistent or trending upward, you’re probably on track.

Being able to track a declining margin can give you a heads-up that you must adjust your prices or your costs. In the worst cases your gross profit and profit margin disappear altogether. At that point, you’ll be like the fellow who lost money on every sale but figured he could make it up in volume. Don’t do it.

What’s Your Debt-to-asset Ratio?

This ratio can let you know how much of the stuff you have in your company is actually owned by someone else — your lender. Having this ratio climb can be a bad sign. It can happen as part of a major expansion, but it can also indicate that you’re getting in over your head.

What’s the Value of Your Accounts Receivable?

This is the money you are owed. If accounts receivable are on the rise, you may be getting a warning that the folks you sell to are starting to stumble.

What’s Your Average Collection Time on Accounts Receivable?

This is probably one of the most aggravating pieces of information for cash-strapped businesses, because it tells you how many days you’re acting as ‘banker’ for the people who owe you money.

What Are Your Accounts Payable?

The flip side of accounts receivable. An increase in your accounts payable may merely reflect a larger amount of purchases overall. But an increase that hasn’t been planned or managed can be an internal warning that your company’s financial strength is waning.

What’s Happening With Your Inventory?

There are occasions, even in this just-in-time business world, when building up a significant inventory can be a good thing.

If prices for items you sell or use in production are relatively low, putting some of your money into inventory may make sense.

Being able to track your inventory can tell you whether business is increasing or slowing down. It also tells you how much money is tied up in this unproductive asset.

Knowing what’s up with your cash flow is essential to your business. But sometimes the figures can be difficult to understand. Don’t ever be afraid to turn to professionals for some help.