Tag Archives: small business

Technology is a Finance Issue – Ask Any Small Business Client

By Charles H. Green

Technology advancements over the past 20 years have had a significant impact on busines and industry, which has led to major changes in output, costs, productivity, employment, marketing and connectivity among other business metrics. Small companies have often been on the leading edge of these changes because they are more nimble and will often realize faster improvements (and profits) by adapting sooner.

The National Small Business Association (NSBA) recently conducted their second survey of technology adoption and dependency among their members and posted some interesting results. Among their key findings was a marked increase in usage of laptops also, from 67 percent in 2010 to 84 percent in 2013.

An interesting tangential finding was the drop in the number of small-business owners who pay an outside firm to handle their information technology (IT), which they asserted was likely driven by two factors: the economic challenges small businesses have faced in the past few years; and improved IT platforms and the growing reliance on–and therefore need to understand—these technology tools and platforms.

Other results from the small companies surveyed:

41% use tablet devices (which were not available during the 2010 survey);

60% allow some employees to telecommute (an increase of over one-third);

50% don’t have broadband or fast-speed internet because it’s still not available;

27% still don’t use social media to promote themselves.

Why is technology a ‘finance issue’ that should concern business lenders? Because it represents a harbinger of the future horizon for the success of that business.

1. Adaptation of new technology signals better productivity is ahead at a cheaper price;

2. Smaller firms can compete more effectively when visable through the web and recognized in social media. Without breaking into these frontiers, that business will be lost to anyone trying to find it.

3. Mobility will be the most heavily-travelled portal through which future consumers conduct business.

Read more at NSBA.

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Patriot Express Loans Under More Scrutiny

By Charles H. Green

A review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Patriot Express loans, valued at $703 million, have a higher default rate than other loans under SBA’s other loan guarantee programs. The GAO report also said that losses for Patriot Express have exceeded its income.

“The Patriot Express program’s overall default rate was significantly higher for smaller loans, especially for loans below $25,000 (20 percent),” according to GAO. And it was revealed that one lender accounted for more than 64 percent of these smaller loans and experienced higher default rates than the remaining lenders.

From 2007 through 2012, losses in the Patriot Express program exceeded income by $31.1 million (not accounting for future fee revenues or funds recovered from loans in default). Patriot Express has continually operated in the red.

In 2010, SBA extended the Patriot Express pilot through 2013 to allow time to evaluate the effect of the program. To date, SBA has not evaluated the program or established a plan of what it intends to do to evaluate it. SBA officials reported to GAO that they “focused their resources on evaluating 7(a) loans because there are many more of them and, therefore, they pose a greater risk to SBA than Patriot Express loans.”

GAO also asserted that SBA’s internal controls over lenders may not provide reasonable assurance that Patriot Express loans are only made to eligible members of the military community and that only these members benefit from loan proceeds. This finding may lead to more direct consequences to participating lenders as this evaluation continues.

Read more at GAO

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Got the Next Great Small Business Idea? Launch a Startup

by Sara Miller

Many of us have that sure-fire business idea mulling in the back of our minds. That doesn’t make us entrepreneurs, however. Entrepreneurship demands action—one step after another, until your business is launched and thriving. Whether you’re just setting out on the journey toward entrepreneurship or well down the path, take the next step to make your dream a reality.

Stage 1 – You Have an Idea

Every good business starts with an idea. Maybe you want to launch a vegetarian taco truck or start a virtual personal assistant firm. Your next step is to develop a business plan that outlines your first three to five years of business. SBA.gov suggests the following outline for business plans:

• Executive summary – A quick snapshot of your business
• Company description – Who you are, who you serve and what you do
• Market analysis – Who your competitors are and what separates you from them
• Organization and management – What organizational structure best suits you
• Service or product – What you sell and what your product lifestyle is
• Marketing and sales – How will you market your business
• Funding request – Who will fund your business and how will you ask for money
• Projected finances – What do you hope to make per year
• Appendix – Additional information relevant to your business, such as licenses and permits

Stage 2 – You’ve Completed Your Business Plan, Now What?

Your next step is to work toward the achievable goals outlined in your business plan. Many young businesses need capital to invest in equipment and infrastructure. A business credit card can help you make these initial purchases at a time when your cash flow may be limited. According to the Better Business Bureau, a new business credit card can actually help you establish good credit and may even have a reward or loyalty component.

Stage 3 – You’re Hiring Your First Employee

That credit card and business plan helped fuel initial growth, and now you need to hire an employee to work toward launch. As DailyMuse.com notes, having an employee dedicated to reaching your goal can help you get there that much faster. The site suggests hiring as soon as you can afford to do so and investing in the potential of a passionate employee rather than choosing someone with demonstrated experience who may not be passionate about your business. If you have multiple stakeholders, have everyone on the team interview that person to ensure a strong cultural fit before hiring.

Stage 4 – You’re Ready to Launch

All your initial goals have been accomplished, and you’re ready to launch your business. Your next step is getting the word out about your products and services.

As a small business, you probably don’t have a marketing maven on hand. Take advantage of social media to connect with other local businesses in your field of expertise, find potential clients or customers and expand brand awareness. Marketing Land suggests that you pick a metric you’re interested in measuring—for example, customer service or brand awareness—and find ways to measure your marketing and social media outreach to see if you’re increasing your target metric. Track how quickly you gain Twitter followers or Facebook fans to see what tactics help expand your reach.

Stage 5 – Steps Toward Stability

After the initial buzz of a grand opening dies down, your business’ success will depend on regular patronage and stability. If you can’t imagine your business failing, taste this grain of salt: half of small business will fail within the first year, according to Smallbiztrends.com, and a staggering 95 percent will close shop within five years.
Ups and downs are inevitable. The businesses that survive struggles usual have a stable base of clients, customers and partners who help keep the lights on. As you embark on small business ownership, build relationships that result in continual business.

A tip: The little things make a difference. Remember your customers’ names, ask about their families and do the other things larger competitors can’t.

Sara Miller
From first grade through graduate school, “B” was never in Sara’s vocabulary. In addition to being a perfectionist, she has always been fascinated by the anatomy of successful start ups.

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When It’s Time to Go Plastic

A clean, accessible accounting system that accounts for every transaction is a requirement for every small business, especially when the company begins to realize increased daily sales.

Trying to keep track of every transaction manually with a paper system can be a nightmare, often leading to missed items and a backlog in processing the postings. Since you also need to know current cash flow and prepare for critical tax reporting and payments, how do you handle all of this efficiently and comprehensively? One way to simplify and make things easier could be going plastic as soon as your doors open.

With electronic payment so widespread, accepting “plastic” payment allows a company to process both credit and debit cards on most of the major networks. Doing so creates easy-to-manage records and paperwork for accounting purposes. Accepting credit/debit card payment also allows a business to be paid immediately rather than waiting for a large personal check to clear.

For small businesses, cash flow is critical. Receiving sales funds as quickly as possible helps a business owner manage his or her company finances on a more predictable basis, paying off vendors in a timely manner. With credit card payments, bounced checks and cash flow hiccups are eliminated. The business knows exactly when and what payment has arrived and can use those funds immediately.

Going plastic also allows a small business to integrate better with e-commerce. Most customers buying goods or services online use a credit card. Small businesses that accept such payments access wider markets, regardless of distance or even country, because the credit card processing companies manage the risk and movement of payments electronically. The customer enjoys risk-free purchasing and the small business enjoys a wider portfolio of customers not possible with cash or check payments.

For tax reporting purposes, most card processing services provide easy-to-download activity records that break out incoming and outgoing funds, the payer and payee, amounts, dates, and what the transaction covered. These activity logs are actual transaction records that are very useful as supporting documentation for tax reporting. So instead of chasing various receipts all over the place, a small business has all it needs on one clean report that can’t be easily disputed in an audit. This reporting format works well for both reporting sales tax as well as business income taxes. Further, the reporting is easily imported into major financial off-the-shelf software programs, producing even easier financial management benefits.

Finally, customers tend to spend more via a credit/debit card payment versus cash. Because the money isn’t due right away, customers find it easier to purchase higher cost items. That in turn means larger sales per transaction for small businesses, which is a good thing when every revenue dollar counts. Up-selling becomes easier too because customers are not concerned about cash in hand.

Using credit cards for your business is a valuable transaction tool and produces greater revenue as well as easier on-the-go financing and important tax records. Smart businesses take advantage of all opportunities, including available payment tools. Go plastic today!

About the author

Kristen Gramigna is Chief Marketing Officer for BluePay, a merchant services provider and also serves on its Board of Directors. She has more than 15 years experience in the bankcard industry in direct sales, sales management and marketing.

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Cost-Saving Tips for Small Business Travel

According to a survey conducted by American Airlines in 2011, nearly half of the small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that responded indicated that 10 to 24 percent of their annual budget is allocated for travel expenses — and nearly all indicated that they are actively controlling airline costs. If your small business falls into those categories, we have some cost-saving travel tips for you (courtesy of the U.S. Small Business Administration)!

Use technology wisely to save on airfare. This includes online tools like Skype, Webex and Face Time that can connect you with partners, customers and satellite offices at little to no cost. Consider equipping your field reps or employees working remotely with tablets, smartphones or laptops to make it easy to interact with them. As an added plus, you can use a camera-equipped device to inspect property, equipment or products at a supplier’s or customer’s location. For more on how tech tools can make virtual meetings a part of your business, read this.

Reap the benefits of the sharing economy. If you’re looking to save $$$ on expenses like car rentals and hotel rooms — and don’t mind trying some non-traditional options — check out group sharing websites like ZipCar and ZimRide for the former and Airbnb and CouchSharing for the latter.

Use loyalty programs and business credit cards to save money. According to the same American Airlines survey cited earlier, SMBs say that enrolling their company in a B2B loyalty program is one of the top three methods of maximizing the value of their travel. If business travel often takes you to the same locations and hotels, consider establishing a corporate account that offers discounted rates with a hotel chain. Additionally, the SBA offers some tips for finding the right business credit cards that offer rewards and points programs here.

Shop bargain travel sites (with care). It’s possible to find deals on travel discount sites, especially if you’re combining a hotel, car and air ticket. Shop around, then cross check prices against the hotel or airline’s website or by phone to ensure that you’re getting the best deal available. Providers may match any online specials offered by discount sites, and their cancellation policies may be friendlier.

Manage your costs on the road. There’s an app for that! One to try is Wi-Fi Finder, a free app that lets you search over 500,000 Wi-Fi hot spots (free or paid) around the world to save you hotel Wi-Fi charges and keep you connected. For tracking and organizing your travel budget, the Travel Pocket app (available for a small fee) gives you parameters for time, location and category and lets you convert your reports into a spreadsheet.

Be smart about business expense tax deductions. You probably already know that you can deduct the cost of mileage, airfares and lodging on your tax return, but did you know you can also deduct 50 percent of meal costs, tips, and even dry cleaning or laundry you need doing on the road? The SBA offers more information on deducting your small business travel expenses on its http://www.sba.gov/community/blogs/community-blogs/small-business-cents/going-road-how-deduct-your-small-business-trave.

Bon voyage and happy savings!

About the Author:
Beth Longware Duff is a professional editor and award-winning writer whose work on a wide variety of topics has been published in print and electronic media. She currently writes on a wide range of topics dealing with electronic payment processing and small business merchant services for Merchant Express.

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Who Knew? You Can Buy Laptops at Midnight in Fergus Falls

One good thing about being an entrepreneur today is modern technology. It is portable, comparatively cheap, and enables many business owners to stay connected. For owners of virtual businesses (like mine) technology allows us to do our jobs from anywhere, at any time.

One bad thing about being an entrepreneur today is †¦ modern technology! Since we’re always plugged in, letting go is nearly impossible. Being tethered to your businesses 24/7 is both a blessing and a curse. Sure, I can take off at a moment’s notice and work from a plane, a car, or in any number of hotels — even the bargain chains offer free wireless these days. But there’s a downside to all that freedom. When you’re wired to the max, there’s a good chance you won’t get much RR. And then there’s the potential nightmare: When you’re that dependent on technology, what happens when it breaks?

I’m not speaking theoretically. This is a true story of taking my business on the road. And you’ll be surprised (at least, I think you will) as to what “saved” me.

My company is virtual and completely dependent upon said modern technology. I own a desktop, two laptops, one tablet, and three cell phones (don’t ask), which you think would be sufficient. Right before leaving for Minnesota (to visit my significant other’s family) the “B” key popped off my HP laptop, which is a major issue when you type the word “business” a gazillion times a day.

I wasn’t that concerned. My HP had been acting sluggish, and I had a new Dell Vostro I was waiting to switch to when I had the time. Trying to be efficient I transferred my Carbonite account (my backup system) to the Vostro. I hadn’t planned on it taking more than 36 hours to transfer my data, perhaps explaining the HP’s sluggish behavior. I had to pause and restart the “restore” process several times before heading west to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, Skip the significant other’s hometown.

Fergie (as it’s affectionately called) has slightly more than 13,000 residents, which is approximately the population of my California neighborhood. The hotel we checked in to had a slow Internet connection, though I was told it was “lightning fast.” This is when the troubles started. I couldn’t find the Carbonite restore link, and must have accidentally clicked install updates. That process was so painfully slow, and I needed to work, so I stopped the installation. BIG mistake. My computer would not restart. I Googled the error message (using my tablet) and quickly discovered to my horror that I had done something that was beyond my meager capabilities and the computer’s own attempts to fix.

So I did what many of you would have done (but maybe not admit to) — I had a mini breakdown. I had assignments due the next day, and lots more to write this week. It would be impossible to write articles on my Xoom or Droid 2. There wasn’t a Staples or Geek Squad within miles to provide solutions. It was 10 p.m. I told my partners they’d have to write some of my blogs. And then I sobbed copiously.

That might seem like an overreaction, but I need a computer to earn a living. The voice of reason came from Skip who said, “Just go buy a new computer.” Sure, I thought, that’ll be easy at 10 p.m. in the middle of nowhere. But it turns out being in a tiny town has its advantages. The Walmart is open 24 hours. So I did what any resourceful (or desperate) entrepreneur would do — I went to Walmart to buy a new laptop.

Since I’m not a Walmart shopper, I was surprised at the array of laptops available. I started to panic again since I’d had no time to do research, but a helpful Walmart employee named Jodi came to my rescue. She narrowed it down to two choices: a Dell and an HP Pavilion. While I was trying to choose, the decision was made for me when Jodi discovered they were out of the Dell model. So I bought a 15.6 inch laptop for less than $500. At 11 p.m. in the middle of nowhere. At Walmart. White knights come in strange forms.

Sometimes the solutions we need are right in front of us, but we’re too short-sighted to see them. I’m a big city girl. It never would have occurred to me to go to Walmart, especially at that time of night, but the small town guy knew better. As much as we like to think we live in a new universe, operating at warp speed through the ether, we’re still tied to the “ancient” brick-and-mortar world. My 21st century tech needs were solved by a store founded nearly 50 years ago.

Do you have a business technology horror story to share? Or better yet, one with a happy ending? I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.


Follow Rieva on Twitter @Rieva and read more of her insights on
SmallBizDaily.com.

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Big storm is big business for small companies

Hurricane Irene could be big business for small firms

AdvantaClean crews get ready for the arrival of Hurricane Irene. If the storm hits hard, the business could see a couple million dollars worth of business.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — While some business owners are fretting over the damage Hurricane Irene could cause, others are gearing up for business opportunities.

Depending on the severity of the storm, AdvantaClean, a North Carolina disaster cleanup company, could see a couple million dollars worth of business in the storm’s aftermath.

hurricane-cake2.jpgA gourmet bakery in Massachusetts is giving away free Hurri-cakes, in hopes of attracting more customers.

“Certainly, our industry does see an increase in demand during these times,” said Jeff Dudan, CEO and founder of AdvantaClean, headquartered in Huntersville, N.C. “Typically our volume will go up both at home, and we can get some incremental volume and revenues in those areas if we are called in to respond.”

In addition to being AdvantaClean’s founder, Dudan owns one of the franchises and has 13 full-time employees and 26 contractors. The company provides cleanup services including air duct cleaning, mold removal, and emergency services from water or fire damages, which means responding to disasters.

10 great franchise bets

The 17-year-old company’s bottom line got a big boost after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Dudan’s team responded in Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., and in the French Quarter of New Orleans. In the immediate emergency response period, Dudan said his company did a couple million dollars worth of work after the storm. And AdvantaClean made more money working large projects in the region for another four years.

The company has been preparing for Hurricane Irene. “We have checked all of our vehicles and made sure that they are fueled,” said Dudan. “We ended up pulling the trigger on several sets of new tires.” In addition, the team has reviewed its emergency response plan.

Still, they are not rushing in. “Personally, we just don’t go running off immediately if it looks like a hurricane may or may not hit,” said Dudan. “It is really difficult to predict whether there will be any real damage.”

Let them eat cake: Whether Irene lands with a whomp or a whimper, at least one company is prepared to make a buck.

Cakes for Occasions, a gourmet bakery in Danvers, Mass., is running a competition on its Facebook page, asking fans to predict what category the National Weather Department will call the storm on Monday. One person who guesses correctly will be randomly selected and get a coupon for 20 percent off.

Also Cakes for Occasions is giving away free “Hurri-cakes”: two-inch chocolate mousse cakes, glazed with chocolate and decorated with the national hurricane symbol and the name of the storm, Irene.

The idea behind the promotion is that customers can’t come into a bakery without being tempted by the smells, said owner Kelly Delaney. In addition to its single storefront, the bakery has a website, Cakes4Occasions.com.

“It always generates some additional sales,” said Delaney, who has run freebie promotions on Facebook before. “You will have a handful of people that will come in for just one, but that is just life.” Delaney has made 210 Hurri-cakes and estimates she will give away 40. Then she hopes to sell the rest, which retail for $1.95 each.

A banner year: It has already been a good year financially for Howard Altschule, who owns Forensic Weather Consultants, a company that provides weather damage reports. Altschule saw more business after last year’s blizzards. And if Irene lives up to expectations, 2011 could turn out to be a banner year for his company.

“I have already seen a 50% increase in revenues this year, without the hurricane,” said Altschule. “It could end up being a 100% revenue jump this year. It all depends on what exactly happens and to what extent.”

Altschule, a certified meteorologist who analyzes weather conditions, provides expertise to insurance companies, law firms, engineers and other companies.

Altschule said he would not be surprised to see a billion dollars worth of damage from Hurricane Irene, between the damage and the loss of revenue. He expects to be “immensely busy.”

Hiring: Yes. No. Maybe so.

Surf’s up: There won’t be throngs of beachgoers this weekend, but some diehard surfers are expected to catch the waves.

“This is something that surfers wait for, the waves that hurricanes bring,” said Johannah Sena, the manager of the family-operated Rockaway Beach Surf Shop in New York. “You have to have a board that is a more high-performing board.”

Still, most expert surfers — the ones most likely to try surfing during a hurricane — already have the gear necessary to ride those enormous waves.

So she doesn’t expect to be selling out of boards.

But, “we will be selling a lot of wax, that is for sure,” said Sena, explaining that surfers use wax to add traction to their boards. Otherwise, the storm won’t be good business for the Rockaway Beach Surf Shop. “Nobody is going to the beach to buy a bathing suit, towels, that kind of stuff,” she said.  To top of page

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A Guide to Finding the Perfect Small’Business Smartphone

New smartphones hit the market every day, and it seems like most of them are packed with hot new features. So if you’re shopping for the very latest in cutting-edge smartphone technology, you probably won’t have to worry about getting all the features you need. They’ll be there, along with plenty of surprising new features.

Many of us, however, are buying on a budget. Maybe you want a budget-priced, unlocked smartphone that doesn’t tie you to a long-term carrier contract. Or maybe you’re OK with a contract, but you’d rather go with a carrier-subsidized smartphone that costs you little or nothing upfront.

If that’s the case, then you’ll need to pay attention to which key features you want in a smartphone and, perhaps, make some trade-offs when you review your available options.

With that in mind, here are some features that you’ll find on many — but not all — of the smartphones available today. This list will change over time, because today’s cutting-edge tech will be tomorrow’s basic feature, but for now it’s a great way to help you get the most smartphone functionality for your money.

A big display. The size of a display isn’t always related to cost; the iPhone 4, with a relatively modest 3.5-inch display, is nobody’s idea of a bargain. But many of today’s hottest new phones now sport 4-inch or bigger displays. Just keep in mind that a bigger display often means carrying around a bigger phone.

Also remember that a bigger display isn’t the same thing as a higher-resolution display. The new Motorola Droid 3, with its 4-inch display, has a 960-by-540 resolution, while the iPhone 4 has a slightly higher 960-by-640 resolution.

Of course, the “best” display is always the one that looks best to you. Just think of these numbers as a starting point for narrowing down your choices before you go shopping.

A fast and responsive touch screen. Touch screen technology has improved dramatically over the past couple of years, but it can still be inconsistent. When you try out a phone, work with the desktop; slide, zoom, open, and close items, and note whether the display picks up on your gestures. It’s even more important to try out the touch screen keypad to ensure that it’s as quick and responsive as you expect it to be.

The operating system.  I won’t wade into the religious wars raging between Apple (iOS) and Google (Android) partisans. But I’d be remiss not to point out that there are more than enough differences between the two leading mobile OSes to make it worth your time to learn about both before you make a decision. It’s more debatable whether you should spend time learning about niche players such as the BlackBerry or Windows Mobile, although fans of those platforms will probably take issue with this opinion.

A physical keyboard. It’s getting harder to find a smartphone these days with a physical keyboard, but they’re still out there. If you absolutely can’t stand using a touch screen keyboard, be prepared to focus your smartphone search on models aimed more at hardcore business users, especially those running on the BlackBerry platform.

The app selection. Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong with the app selection for either the iPhone (iOS) or Android platforms. You won’t just find an app for every occasion — you’ll find dozens of them. If anything, it’s almost a surplus, and you’ll have to do your homework to pick the perfect app from so many choices.

Here, too, you’ll find a much smaller supply of apps for platforms such as Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and especially HP’s now-defunct WebOS. (If you’re considering a WebOS phone, by the way, I suggest you look elsewhere. HP recently announced that it is giving up on its mobile-device offerings.)

Front-facing camera. Want a smartphone that lets you do on-the-go videoconferencing? Be sure to pick a model with a high-quality, front-facing camera. Fans of the iPhone swear by Apple’s FaceTime app for videoconferencing support, although it won’t let you conduct more than a two-way conversation. (For that, you’ll want to consider a third-party app such as Skype.)

Also keep in mind that the quality of smartphone cameras continues to advance rapidly; some now take both video and still footage that rivals what you can get from a dedicated digital camera. If photo and video quality is important — and it is for many business users — then look for a phone that includes at least an 8-megapixel camera and 1080p video capture.

Battery life. Here’s the first thing you need to know about smartphone battery life: It pays to take manufacturer claims with a big grain of salt. Obviously, you can’t sit around with a stopwatch and test the battery life on every phone you consider. Instead, look for quality third-party reviews, and pay particular attention to their battery-life tests.

Expandable storage. Many smartphones now include slots for microSD add-on memory cards. These are a great way to move files quickly between devices without connecting a cable. Better yet, they allow you to back up important data and save it in a safe place.

Standard, nonproprietary chargers and data connectors. Some smartphone manufacturers still insist upon selling phones that use proprietary connectors to charge the battery and transfer data. It’s ridiculous, and it needs to stop — there’s no reason why every phone made today shouldn’t use a standard USB-based cable for charging and file transfers.

A final word of advice: It’s easy to find plenty of professional and user reviews for even the latest smartphone models. Don’t make a snap decision based on just one or two reviews. Instead, look at a cross-section of reviews, preferably from more than one major review website or online retailer. In return, you’ll get some great insights into what people like and dislike about a particular phone.

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Windows XP: Why It’s Time for Small Businesses to Say Goodbye

Ten years ago this week, Microsoft finished up work on a new operating system called Windows XP and shipped it off to PC makers. If you’d told Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer back then that XP would still be the dominant version of Windows a decade later, they would have mocked you.

So would have most Windows watchers, including me. Everybody knew that a major new version of the Microsoft’s desktop OS came along every two or three years. Everybody knew that even hidebound stragglers eventually upgraded.

Bitten By Vista, Shy About Windows 7

Everybody, it turned out, was wrong. According to research firm Net Applications, just under 50 percent of PCs on the Internet run Windows XP. That’s nearly twice as many as the number using the current version of Microsoft’s operating system, Windows 7, which hit the market in October of 2009. XP usage is slipping, but far more slowly than anyone expected.

Even today, I know more than a few small business owners who have no plans whatsoever to give up Windows XP.

How did it come to this? Two words: Windows Vista. The successor to Windows XP, unveiled in January 2007 after multiple delays, just didn’t work well enough, especially at first. Even after Microsoft released updates that made Vista less glitchy, it remained short on compelling features. And some of the features it did have felt like arguments for sticking with XP. (User Account Control, a security safeguard which tried to protect users from rogue software, was a jarring, confusing irritant.)

In the Windows Vista era, many businesses and consumers sensibly ignored Microsoft’s upgrade drumbeat. Many of them continued doing so even after the company released Windows 7. (The fact that Microsoft provides no way to install Windows 7 on top of XP and preserve your current apps and settings hasn’t helped. Unless you use LapLink’s PCMover utility, you need to rebuild your system from scratch if you want to upgrade.)

Windows XP: Not Dead Yet!

Microsoft, of course, relies on sales of Windows upgrades to drive its massive profits. So it’s been trying to wean the world off XP for years. It stopped selling shrink-wrapped copies long ago, no longer lets PC makers sell machines with XP preinstalled, and officially discontinued most support for the operating system in 2008.

But the company hasn’t quite driven a stake through XP’s heart. It says that it intends to provide basic support and security updates for Windows XP Service Pack 3, the current version, until April 8, 2014. And businesses that buy PCs with some versions of Windows 7 have the right to “downgrade” those computers to XP.

My feelings about Windows XP’s amazing staying power are conflicted. On one hand, I understand why small businesses instinctively stick with stuff that’s comfortably familiar. I admire their skepticism about overhyped, underperforming products such as Windows Vista. I think it’s smart that so many companies delay buying new technology until the most serious bugs have been discovered and fixed.

Why the Future Is a Windows 7 World

Here’s the thing, though: Windows 7 is pretty great. It’s the operating system that Vista should have been, and it’s well worth the cost (the Professional Edition upgrade lists for $199.99). Holding onto Windows XP until something better came along was a savvy move; holding onto it forever is not.

A few key points in favor of Windows 7 and against XP:

Windows 7 has a superior interface. Once you’ve acclimated yourself — which shouldn’t take all that long — you can work far more efficiently. Unlike Windows XP, it mostly stays out of your face. (You can prevent apps from distracting you with those annoying pop-up balloon alerts, for instance.) Its Taskbar lets you juggle apps and documents far more efficiently. The built-in search feature is more powerful, faster, and more pleasant than the one in XP. A slicker design and better font rendering makes everything easier on the eyeballs. I could go on for a few thousand more words — and did when I reviewed the operating system in 2009.

Windows 7 is much more secure. Businesses that are still smitten with Windows XP forget that it’s a notoriously insecure piece of software. Microsoft is still creating security updates for XP Service Pack 3, but that’s like trying to patch up an ancient, leaky boat. A recent Microsoft survey reported that Windows XP SP3 computers suffer an average of 15.9 infections by viruses and other malware per 1,000 machines. PCs running the 64-bit version of Windows 7 are infected only 2.5 times per 1,000 machines.

Windows 7 packs 64-bit power. Any PC you’ve bought recently probably packs a potent multicore 64-bit processor from Intel or AMD. It’ll work with Windows XP, but XP is only a 32-bit operating system — which means that your PC won’t run as fast as it could, especially for tasks that involve intense number crunching, such as working with giant spreadsheets and editing video. Windows 7 is available in a 64-bit edition that lets cutting-edge PCs live up to their full potential.

Windows 7 is compatible with the future. For now, most third-party software and hardware supports Windows XP. Given that it’s still the most popular operating system on the planet, that only makes sense. But the mustier XP gets, the more likely you are to find software that won’t work with it. Already, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 — by far the company’s best Web browser to date — is available only for Windows 7 and Vista.

One other argument for upgrading to Windows 7 now: Nearly two years after its release, it’s a reasonably mature operating system. Microsoft released a Service Pack 1 update in February that rolled up all the fixes and tweaks it’s pushed out to date. The chances of you encountering any Vista-like crippling problems are small, and an optional feature called Windows XP Mode is available in case of emergency.

I realize that I’m not going to persuade all of you to dump XP this moment. If you keep using it, however, I beseech you: Please, please make sure you’ve upgraded to Service Pack 3 and that you install new fixes as they come along. That’ll make XP as good as it can possibly be, although it still won’t be nearly as good as Windows 7.

And even if you conclude that you’re happy with Windows XP, you need to plan now for life without it. You certainly shouldn’t use an operating system that’s unprotected from new security attacks, which means you’ll want to leave XP behind before Microsoft cuts off security updates in April of 2014.

By then, the current version of Windows won’t be Windows 7 — it’ll likely be Windows 8. Microsoft isn’t saying when it plans to release that version, but it’ll almost certainly be available by the fall of 2012. I wouldn’t be stunned if it arrives several months earlier than that.

We don’t know too much about Windows 8 yet other than that it sports a rather iPad-like touch-screen interface as well as one that looks more like the Windows we know; Microsoft says it’ll have much more to say at its BUILD conference next month. Stay tuned for news.

And hey, if you remain an XP holdout for now, telling people that you’ve been waiting for Windows 8 all along is a convenient excuse that might also prove to be a rational strategy.

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Help for social media mayhem

Holy crap! Someone used social media to trash your company.  Social media monitoring tools can minimize the damage.

Holy crap! Someone used social media to trash your company. Social media monitoring tools can minimize the damage.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — It wasn’t until a man diagnosed with measles ate at her New Jersey diner that Connie Correia Fisher, co-owner of The Pop Shop, discovered that the only thing that spreads faster than an infectious disease is bad news.

“We had every major TV station here. All the papers were here, and people were freaking out,” said Fisher, who co-owns The Pop Shop with husband and professional actor Stink Fisher. But that’s not all. Within no time, parents and restaurant regulars alike had taken to the Internet, voicing their health concerns on public platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

But while Fisher couldn’t stop the television crews from hanging outside her six-year-old restaurant, she was able to “constantly beat back down” the fear-mongering flooding social media channels, thereby saving her company “thousands of dollars” in lost business. That’s because Fisher subscribes to Sprout Social, a social media monitoring tool that, for $50 a month, helps her keep tabs on every single online conversation mentioning The Pop Shop.

Welcome to the world of social media where 140 characters can cause irreparable damage to your company’s reputation — and bottom line — in seconds flat. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn — each one is a digital grapevine, letting consumers air their grievances to millions with the single click of a mouse.

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When someone posted a video on YouTube of rats running around a New York City Taco Bell restaurant in February of 2007, the video spread across the web like wildfire, causing Taco Bell’s (YUM, Fortune 500) stock price and sales to drop, and prompting duplicate videos with more than two million views to date.

And then there was the catastrophic BP oil spill in early 2010. Despite thousands of tweets from angry citizens being published within hours of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, it took the oil giant seven days to issue a Twitter response.

Despite these social networking snafus, multinational corporations can more easily rebound from an onslaught of unflattering tweets and derisive Facebook updates than a resource-strapped small business.

“Large enterprises spend a lot of money on public relations so they can throw an entire army at the problem,” said Tim Hickernell, an analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. “But a small business owner doesn’t have that army. He has to take the time to manage his company’s reputation.”

No wonder then that a growing number of small businesses like The Pop Shop are turning to social media tracking technologies such as those offered by Sprout Social, Radian6 (recently acquired by Salesforce.com (CRM)), HootSuite, Twitter Advanced Search, and Sysomos.

These modern-day eavesdropping tools scour the conversations taking place on social networks for relevant comments — and damning criticism, enabling companies to respond in real-time to online opinions. In fact, according to a Forrester survey, of the 301 customer intelligence professionals canvassed, 78 percent responded that they actively monitor what customers are saying online.

Take, Blue Sky Factory, for example. When a customer tweeted a complaint to his 50,000 followers about the Baltimore company’s customer service, Radian6 immediately caught the criticism and alerted Blue Sky Factory’s 23-person agency via email. Within minutes, a Blue Sky Factory customer service representative responded directly to the tweet with a very public apology. It was a critical intercept given that 22 percent of Blue Sky Factory’s business hails from social media channels. In fact, the company sees close to 1,000 mentions a month.

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Stephan Howard wasn’t so lucky. Instead of using a social media monitoring tool, Howard, the owner of Flik and Company, a Toronto interior design firm, learned from customers that his business was being trashed in a local community blog. ‘Have you been ‘Flick’d’ Over?’ read the thread initiated by a disgruntled Flik customer, who claims Flik failed to make good on a down payment for furniture until he took his ordeal to the blogosphere. (Howard denies the allegations).

In no time, the blog became ablaze with name-calling, finger-pointing and commentary from scores of customers. That is, until Howard contacted the local police department, which ordered the blog’s administrator to terminate the thread.

“It really did get ugly,” said Howard, who has since moved out of the neighborhood and relaunched his store under the banner Flik by Design. “I was bothered a lot by what happened, I was sick to my stomach, and there were nights when I didn’t sleep.”

Social media monitoring products can help. However, selecting the right one for your business requires sifting through “hundreds of tools from free services to million-dollar-plus technologies,” said Zach Hofer-Shall, a Forrester Research analyst. These products range from Web-based dashboards that aggregate social media data to sophisticated analytics tools that mine data and generate custom reports.

For cash-strapped small businesses, free tools such as Google Alerts and Twitter Advanced Search let users conduct keyword searches for the names of their companies and competitors, but have “very limited functionality,” warned Hofer-Shall.

That suits Parties That Cook just fine. The San Francisco corporate team-building and cooking class company relies on Google Alerts to flag mentions on user review sites like Yelp. “In a small company with limited resources, it just doesn’t make sense to spend the extra money or extra time [on a costly social media monitoring tool],” said Crissy Gershey, Parties That Cook’s marketing director.

Nevertheless, the $5.99 a month it costs for HootSuite’s basic analytics solution, or $500 a month for Sysomos’ more robust Heartbeat solution, can be a worthwhile investment. By upgrading from Google Alerts to Radian6, DJ Waldow, Blue Sky Factory’s director of community, said he spends nearly three times less sifting through company mentions, and no longer worries about angry tweets or Facebook comments “slipping through the cracks.”  To top of page

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