Start-Ups Archives

Get An Attorney Now – It’ll Save You Later

There are two professionals every business will need early on: an accountant and a lawyer. The reasons for hiring an accountant are pretty obvious, you need someone to help you set up your “chart of accounts,” review your numbers periodically, and prepare all of your necessary federal, state and local tax returns.

The reason for hiring a business attorney may not, however, be so apparent. A good business attorney will provide vital assistance in almost every aspect of your business, from basic zoning compliance and copyright and trademark advice to formal business incorporation and lawsuits and liability. First, some general rules about dealing with lawyers:

If you are being sued, it’s too late. Most small businesses put off hiring a lawyer until the sheriff is standing at the door serving them with a summons.

The time to hook up with a good business lawyer is before you are sued. Once you have been served with a summons and complaint, it’s too late–the problem has already occurred, and it’s just a question of how much you will have to pay (in court costs, attorneys’ fees, settlements and other expenses) to get the problem resolved.

America’s judicial system is a lot like a Roach Motel — it’s easy to get into court, but very difficult to get out once you’ve been “trapped.” Most lawyers agree that while nobody likes to pay attorneys’ fees for anything (heck, let’s let our hair down–nobody likes paying or dealing with lawyers, period), but the fee a lawyer will charge to keep you out of trouble is only a small fraction of the fee a lawyer will charge to get you out of trouble once it’s happened.

Selling on the Web

As with any business move or expansion, considering an online presence can raise a sometimes dizzying list of questions for an entrepreneur. Exactly what must be put in place to make it happen? How does an online presence change the market for the business? What are competitors doing? How will people shop? What kind of security is required? How will customers pay online?

Why Go Online?

The most amazing aspect of e-commerce is its ability to impact sales and marketing efforts immediately. By going online, suddenly a neighborhood bakery or a home based consulting service expands its reach to a national, or even international base of potential customers. Web-based sales know no international boundaries.

Forrester Research, which analyzes online trends and statistics, projects the online retail market for U.S. businesses to be $230 billion by the end of 2008. That’s a full 10 percent of anticipated total U.S. retail sales.

Not only is the internet increasing the number of potential customers that a company can reach, but it’s also driving profitability, according to research from IPSOS, commissioned by PayPal. The survey discovered that, far from being an extra “expense,” internet operations boosted businesses’ bottom lines. Of small businesses that sell online,:

  • 64 percent said the internet has increased their revenues or sales
  • 48 percent felt the internet helped to expand their geographic reach in the United States
  • 73 percent saved money by decreasing administrative costs

Cash flow is of significant importance to a new business–online or brick and mortar. The study found that small business owners who conduct business online feel it allows them to receive payments faster and conduct business easier.

When entrepreneurs move online, they establish themselves on a level playing field with larger competitors. On the internet, even the smallest online retailer can be as attractive and as functional as the largest big box store–without the need to have a physical presence on every street corner. Often, small shops project a “boutique” feel that attracts shoppers, who perceive smaller businesses as more distinctive than larger stores.

Turning Shoppers into Buyers

Online shoppers are finicky. Those who aren’t experienced customers–who haven’t yet discovered the convenience of two-day delivery or easy returns–tend to be skittish during the entire shopping experience. A well-planned, secure shopping cart should make the checkout process easy, clear and flexible for the shopper.

Jupiter Research found that 54 percent of internet shoppers have stopped buying from certain online stores in the middle of a transaction because they have concerns about service, delivery, shipping or handling. Other estimates range as high as 60 to 90 percent abandonment of shopping carts on some e-commerce sites.

Sometimes it’s because of confusion; other times, frustration over the process or lack of information. Some shoppers just use the cart as a place to hold items they’re considering and, in the end, never buy.

When setting up an online shopping cart for a business, consider the following tips:

  • Don’t force the shopper to go through a lengthy process of logging in, creating passwords and filling out voluminous forms. Privacy issues and complexity of the process can lead the buyer to end the process before even registering.
  • Include a link to a page detailing customer service policies, such as warranties, delivery guarantees, return policy, and shipping fee structure.
  • Provide “help” tips, a frequently-asked-questions (FAQs) page and a toll-free phone number for consumers to use if they have problems or questions relating to checkout.
  • Offer assurance that credit card information is protected through encryption and a highly secure online transmission process.
  • Allow customers to call up information about the items being purchased without having to leave the checkout page, with links to windows that contain the product information page.
  • Make it easy for buyers to add or remove items, change quantities, or select different models and styles of a product once they are on the checkout page.
  • Indicate the progress buyers are making during the checkout process, revealing the number of steps involved, showing which step they are on at any given time and allowing them to return to earlier steps to make changes.
  • Show the shipping costs at the front end of the checkout process. For some products, these costs determine whether the shopper will buy online and the quantity they will buy.
  • Clearly indicate a button or link to move on to the next checkout step and make it more prominent than other links on the page.
  • Provide multiple options for payment, including credit cards, checks or an online payment service.

Cash flow can make or break a company, especially in its early stages. That’s why many online businesses often encourage credit card payments, although it’s also helpful to give buyers alternative opportunities to pay with checks and money orders. Offering a variety of methods for shoppers to pay online increases the opportunity for these buyers to pay in the method they prefer.

Accepting payments online increases revenue and cash flow because money goes into the account immediately. Even more compelling is that there are more than 1.2 billion consumer credit cards worldwide. Credit card payments aren’t returned for non-sufficient funds–and credit card holders tend to do more impulse buying than those who write personal checks.

Businesses have several options when setting up an e-commerce function and accepting payments online, which include:

Processing payments through a merchant account. To accept credit cards online, a small-business owner must first apply for a bank merchant account and then find a way to process transactions. At a brick-and-mortar store, the processing takes place when a card is swiped through the card reader. At an online store, the processing is done when a shopper types in the credit card information, which is then verified by a merchant account processor.

During most online checkout flows, a shopper is asked which method of payment is preferred. If the shopper selects a form of credit card payment, he or she will be redirected to a secure page within the store to enter the credit card information. After the shopper selects “submit,” the credit card information will be sent to the correct merchant account, where it will be verified and either accepted or denied by the merchant account service provider.

Merchant accounts may have drawbacks for some small-business owners, however. Most charge set-up, monthly and per-transaction fees. Additional fees may also be involved if a business owner has a pre-existing account for a physical store, and wants to convert that account to accept payments online. Moreover, some banks won’t approve small online businesses for merchant accounts, considering them high-risk operations.

It may take 30 days or more for a merchant account to be approved and the integration process can be burdensome for business owners to do it themselves. Fortunately, the growth of online sales has given rise to an entire industry of merchant service bureaus that will grant a merchant account and everything else needed to accept online payments.

Integrating an online payment service. If a business doesn’t have access to a merchant account or the fees are just too high, one solution is an online payment service, like PayPal. PayPal allows businesses to accept credit-card transactions and payments safely and conveniently. It also allows buyers to send payments directly from a bank account.

When a buyer indicates the desire to use PayPal during checkout, that person will be directed to sign into or sign up for a PayPal account to then complete the transaction.

For merchants there may be benefits for offering PayPal. There are no setup charges, monthly charges, minimums or gateway fees. PayPal charges a per-transaction fee, which ranges from 1.9 percent to 2.9 percent plus 30 cents per transaction. PayPal also actively fights chargebacks on behalf of online merchants. If a transaction meets all of the requirements of PayPal’s Seller Protection Policy, then the merchant will not be liable to for the chargeback by the customer.

Ensuring Transaction Security

Online entrepreneurs have a responsibility to do all they can to ensure their websites offer a safe shopping experience. But they don’t need to be information technology security experts to have a secure site–the techies already have developed security measures that any online small business can adopt.

There are services in this space that bring together all the security measures that an online small business needs to have in place. PayPal enables businesses to set up a website that accepts credit cards without seeing or having to store the account numbers of its customers.

This makes buyers feel even safer because they don’t have to share their personal or financial information online. Gateway services like Authorizenet.com, CyberSource or Chase Paymentech Solutions will also handle credit card and electronic check payments securely.

Developing a Privacy Policy

Consumers’ fears of identity theft and the aggravation over spam make privacy policies essential for online businesses. Customers expect merchants to boldly exhibit their privacy policies on their stores’ sites, with links from the catalog pages and the shopping cart.

A privacy policy should describe how data, such as the customer’s personal contact information and financial details, is collected and used. Consumers should be given the opportunity to opt out of having their information sold or distributed and of receiving e-mail newsletters or other company communications.

An online business must post its privacy policy–and stick to it! This type of policy shows that the business takes customer privacy seriously and will use information it obtains in a responsible way.

Businesses can obtain a “seal of approval” for their privacy policies through a company called TRUSTe. For an annual fee, this California-based organization awards use of its seal to e-commerce sites that adhere to its privacy principles and comply with its verification and dispute-resolution processes. If a business doesn’t have a privacy policy, TRUSTe offers models that can be adapted and even a privacy policy writing “wizard” to help with the process.

Starting an online store may seem like a daunting challenge, but the reality is it’s never been easier. Today, many of the processes of moving a business online have become standardized and even automated. Business owners discover an entirely new meaning in their business lives when–through the process of building an online store–they realize they’ve optimized their new-found markets and won the trust of internet consumers.

The Internet, in fact, can work for any entrepreneurial personality. If an entrepreneur thinks life is just a bowl of cherries, we’ll find him selling cherry bowls. Never have entrepreneurs had such a clear, easy and relatively inexpensive opportunity to reach a global marketplace for so many products and services. It’s amazing how a business can thrive when its customers only need to lift a finger.

10 Steps to Move a Business Online

  1. Competitor landscape review. Look at competitors online and decide how you will differentiate yourself from them.
  2. URL. Register a domain name.
  3. Web development. Hire a web site developer or buy web development software, then determine site design and navigation.
  4. Technology. Buy a server or find an outsourced Internet service provider.
  5. Payment. Find a secure online order solution, including shopping cart and payment service.
  6. Protection. Fight viruses and protect the site and computers with anti-virus software.
  7. Marketing. Develop a marketing plan, which includes determining and publishing customer service policies.
  8. Contracts. Establish alliances with crucial partners, such as product suppliers, search engine optimizers, fulfillment services, shippers, web technicians, marketing or public relations firms.
  9. Product. Create an online catalog or listings.
  10. Maintenance. Keep inventory, catalogs and listings up to date for your customers.

The Right Way to Manage Your Money

Money management is tricky business. In addition to customers, cash flow and managing your accounts properly is what keeps your business humming along. Consequently, getting paid in full and on time, as well as understanding money management, has to become a priority, even if you elect to hire an accountant or bookkeeper to manage the books.

You will still need to familiarize yourself with basic bookkeeping and money management principles and activities such as understanding credit, reading bank statements and tax forms, and making sense of accounts receivable and payable. You also have to give careful consideration to the purchase payment options you offer customers, including cash, checks, debit cards, credit cards and online payment options, as well as establishing payment terms and debt collection in the event of nonpayment.

Opening a Bank Account

Once you’ve chosen a name and registered your business, you will need to open a commercial bank account. Setting up a business bank account is easy. Start by selecting the bank you want to work with–think small-business-friendly–and call to arrange an appointment to open an account. There’s not much more required than that.

However, when you go, make sure you take personal identification as well as your business name registration papers and business license, because these are usually required to open a commercial bank account. The next step will be to deposit funds into your new account (even $100 is okay). If your credit is sound, also ask the bank to attach a line of credit to your account, which can prove very useful when making purchases for the business or during slow sales periods to cover overhead until business increases. Also be sure to ask about a credit card merchant account, debit account, and other small business services.

Bookkeeping

When it comes time to set up your financial books, you have two options–do it yourself or hire an accountant or bookkeeper. You might want to do both by keeping your own books and hiring an accountant to prepare year-end financial statements and tax forms.

If you opt to keep your own books, make sure you invest in accounting software such as Quickbooksor Quickenbecause they’re easy to use and makes bookkeeping almost enjoyable. Most accounting software programs allow you to create invoices, track bank account balances and merchant account information, and keep track of accounts payable and receivable.

If you’re unsure about your bookkeeping abilities even with the aid of accounting software, you may wish to hire a bookkeeper to do your books on a monthly basis and a chartered accountant to audit the books quarterly and prepare year-end business statements and tax returns.

To find an accountant or bookkeeper in your area, you can contact the U.S. Association of Chartered Accountantsor the American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers. In Canada, you can contact the Chartered Accountants of Canadaor the Canadian Bookkeepers Association.

If you’re only washing windows on weekends to earn a few extra bucks, there’s little need for accounting software or accountant services. Simply invest in a basic ledger and record all business costs and sales. Since you are doing it on your own, be sure to use a commonsense approach when calculating how much to invest in your business vs. expected revenues and profits.

Also remember to keep all business and tax records in a dry and secure place for up to seven years. This is the maximum amount of time the IRS and Revenue Canada can request past business revenue and expense information.

In today’s super-competitive business environment, you must provide customers with many ways to pay, including cash, debit card, credit card and electronic cash. There is a cost to provide these payment options–account fees, transaction fees, equipment rental and merchant fees based on a percentage of the total sales value. But these expenses must be viewed as a cost of doing business in the 21st century.

You can, however, reduce fees by shopping for the best service with the best prices. Not all banks, merchant accounts and payment processing services are the same, and fees vary widely. You can also check with small business associations such as the chamber of commerce to see if they offer member discounts; it’s not uncommon to save as much as 2 percent on credit card merchant fees. Just remember, consumers expect choices when it comes time to pay for their purchases, and if you elect not to provide these choices, expect fewer sales.

Cash is the first way to get paid, which is great because it’s liquid and there’s no processing time required. As fast as the cash comes in, you can use it to pay bills and invest in business-building activities to increase revenues and profits. The major downside is that cash is risky because you could get robbed or lose it.

In cases like that, collecting from your insurance company could prove difficult if there’s no paper transaction as proof. Even if you prefer not to receive cash, there are people who will pay in cash, so get in the habit of making daily bank deposits during daylight hours. Also invest in a good-quality safe for cash storage for times when you cannot get to the bank.

If you’re running a service business, one the most popular way people still pay for services is with a check. You have to take a few precautions to ensure you don’t get left holding a rubber check, especially when dealing with new clients. Ask to see a photo ID and write the customer’s driver’s license number on the check.

If the amount of the check exceeds a few hundred dollars, ask the buyer to get the check certified or pay with a bank draft instead, especially if the client is new to your business. Also get in the habit of checking dates and dollar amounts to make sure they are right. I have been caught a few times with wrong dates and dollar amounts and it can be time-consuming to have to get a new check because of a simple error.

Debit cards are another option, but to accept them, you will need to buy or rent a debit card terminal. Most banks and credit unions offer business clients debit card equipment and services. The processing equipment will set you back about $40 per month for a terminal connected to a conventional telephone line and about $100 per month for a cellular terminal, plus the cost of the telephone line or cellular service.

There is also a transaction fee charged by the bank and payable by you every time there is a debit card transaction, which ranges from 10 cents to 50 cents per transaction, based on variables such as dollar value and frequency of use.

Opening a Credit Card Merchant Account

Many consumers have replaced paper money altogether in favor of plastic for buying goods and services. In fact, giving your customers the option to pay for purchases with a credit card is often crucial to success. This is especially true if you plan to do business on the web because credit cards and electronic cash are used to complete almost all web sales and financial transactions.

To offer customers credit card payment options, you will need to open a credit card merchant account. Get started by visiting your bank or credit union or by contacting a merchant account broker such as 1st American Card Service, Cardservice International or Merchant Account Express to inquire about opening an account.

Providing your credit is sound, you will run into few obstacles. If your credit is poor, you may have difficulties opening a merchant account or have to provide a substantial security deposit. If you are still unsuccessful, the next best option is to open an account with an online payment service provider, which is discussed in the next section.

The advantages of opening a credit card merchant account enabling you to accept credit card payments are numerous. In fact, studies have proven that merchants who accept credit cards can increase sales by up to 50 percent. Not to mention that you can accept credit card payments online, over the telephone, by mail and in person, as well as sell services on an installment basis by obtaining permission to charge your customer’s credit card monthly or per agreement.

Of course, all these benefits come at a cost, especially when you consider that you’ll have to pay an application fee, setup fee, purchase or rent processing equipment and software, pay administration and statement fees, and pay processing and transaction fees ranging from 2 to 8 percent on total sales volume. Once again, these fees must be viewed as the cost of doing business.

Online Payment Services

Online payment services allow people and businesses to exchange currency electronically over the internet. These services are very popular with consumers and merchants. PayPalis one of the more popular online payment services with more than 40 million members in 45 countries, offering personal and business account services. Both types of accounts allow funds to be transferred electronically among members, but only the business account enables merchants to accept credit card payments for goods and services.

The advantages of online payment services are that they’re quick, easy and cheap to open, regardless of your credit rating or anticipated sales volumes, and you can receive payment from any customer with an e-mail account. You can have the funds deposited directly into your account, have a check issued and mailed, or leave funds in your account to draw on using your debit card. The only real disadvantage is that most services redirect your customers to their website to complete the transaction. This can confuse people who in some cases will abandon the purchase.

Every small-business owner also needs to establish a payment-terms policy. Although you certainly want to standardize the way you get paid, at the same time you will also have to be flexible enough to meet clients’ needs on an individual basis. Setting payment terms covers deposits, progress payments and extending credit.

It’s important to establish clear, written payment terms with clients prior to providing services or delivering product. Your payment terms should be printed on your estimate forms, included in formal contracts and work orders, and printed on your final invoices and monthly account statements.

Securing Deposits

If you’re run a service business, you have to get in the habit of asking clients for a deposit prior to providing services, especially if the work also involves product sales that have to be paid for by you in advance. In this case, the deposit should be for at least the value of the materials. If you’re supplying labor only, try to secure a deposit of at least one-third to one-half of the total value of the contract in advance of providing any services.

Your order form or contract should have the deposit information clearly stated. Information on canceled orders or contracts and your refund policy should also be on your forms. Securing a deposit is your best way of ensuring that, at minimum, basic out-of-pocket costs are covered should the customer cancel the job or contract.

Progress Payments

Progress payments are also a way to ensure that you do not leave yourself open to financial risk. The key to successfully securing progress payments is to prearrange your contract and payment terms. Agree on the amount that will be due at various stages of the project. You can use percentages to calculate the progress payments, such as 25 percent deposit, 25 percent upon delivery of any materials, 25 percent upon substantial completion, and the balance at completion or within 30 days of substantial completion.

Or you may arrange for more concrete progress payments based on indicators that are relevant to the specific scope of work, the job or the services provided. Regardless of the system you use, progress payments on larger jobs can dramatically lessen your exposure to financial risk.

Extending Credit

In most cases there’s no need to extend credit to consumers unless you deliver a service such as pest control that’s billed monthly or a major contract that is completed in stages. As a general rule, when a transaction is complete you should be paid in full. However, in the case of business-to-business sales, commercial clients will generally want some type of credit on a revolving-account basis, such as 30, 60, 90 or sometimes 120 days after delivery of the product or completion of the service.

Ideally, you want to be paid as quickly as possible, so you might want to offer a 2-percent discount if invoices are paid within one week. And if you do extend credit, make sure to conduct a credit check first, especially when large sums of money are at stake. There are three major credit-reporting agencies serving the United States and Canada: Trans Union, Equifaxand Experian. All three credit bureaus compile and maintain credit files on just about every person, business and organization that has ever applied for credit.

Debt Collection

No matter how careful you are when it comes to extending credit privileges to customers, once in a while you will not be paid on time or at all. What can you do to get paid? The first rule of getting paid is to keep the lines of communication open with your delinquent client, and keep the pressure on to get paid through the use of nonthreatening telephone calls, letters and personal visits.

You cannot legally intimidate clients into paying you, but you can explain why it is in their best interest to pay you–namely, to keep your business relationship intact, that nonpayment can hurt their credit rating or that you may sue them if they do not pay.

Another option is to hire a collection agency to collect the outstanding debt. Collection agencies generally charge a percentage of the total amount owed as their fee, which can range up to as much as 50 percent. The Association of Credit and Collection Professionals is a good starting point for finding a collection agency to work with.

Your final option is to take the delinquent account to small-claims court, but remember that small-claims courts have limits as to how much you can sue for in your state or province, ranging from $1,500 to $25,000. Filing fees vary by state and province as well, and these must be paid upfront. But if you win, the fees are added to your award.

As a rule of thumb, small-business owners that take people to court for nonpayment generally represent themselves, as the amount of the potential award is usually small and doesn’t justify lawyers’ fees and expenses. Even if you win, you will not necessarily be paid the amount you’re awarded. You may win a judgment, but still have to chase the defendant through garnishment of income or seizure of assets to get paid. You can learn more about the small-claims court process and filing fees by contacting your local courthouse.

Hire The Right People – They’re Worth Every Penny

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How many times have you tried so hard to match the skills of a candidate to the demands of the open position that the most important characteristics of a person have been relegated to lesser importance or forgotten entirely?

Finding the “Right Stuff”

The key to a person’s worth (the “right stuff”) is integrity, honesty, intelligence, the ability to communicate, and the ability and willingness to learn. Technical skills are important, but without the key ingredients, the technical skills of the applicant may be irrelevant.

Finding the candidate with the “right stuff” is not an easy task, but then my grandmother, after several years of urging, finally convinced me that anything that is worthwhile is difficult and requires considerable effort.

There are several roads to successful hiring:

Personal knowledge of a candidate.The best candidates are usually not hunting for a job. They may be people employed by one of your customers, people in competing companies, people in the same industry but not in the same line of business, or people in other industries who have exhibited the talents necessary for the job. More important, do you or one of your key associates personally know the candidates? If so, you may begin to pursue them, but with a few admonitions.

If the selected candidate works for a customer, it’s a good plan to contact the customer and let him know that his employee is a candidate for your position. I once hired one of my best customer’s top men, believing that I would lose the customer. I decided it was worth the risk. I did lose the customer, but not forever. The man I hired is now successfully running the business from which I retired. It was well worth it!

People with the “right stuff” are absolutely essential to the future success of your business! A compromise in this area has come back to hurt many businesses: it typically involves terminating the “compromise” and repeating the hiring process. What’s worse is that these “compromises” do poor work, cause internal problems, and end up costing the company in many ways.

Depending upon your relationship with a competitor who has a potential candidate, you may wish to treat that competitor much the same as recommended for your customer. The same may be said for candidates working for one of your suppliers.

A valued friend knows the candidate personally.

This is the next best thing to knowing the candidate yourself. A referral from a friend, a business associate or a present employee whose judgment you respect is a valid basis for pursuing a candidate. Note that your friend must be more than a golfing buddy; you must respect his judgment as you would a trusted associate.

Pay the price.

If the first two approaches don’t provide a candidate, the next best avenue to the “right stuff” is a toll road. A search firm or a highly reputed employment agency is a good but expensive route (often in the area of 30 percent of the employee’s starting annual compensation). Keep in mind, however, the value of an outstanding employee. It far surpasses the fee you may have to pay.

Your agreement with the search firm or agency should include the right to reimbursement if the hired candidate doesn’t work out within a reasonable time period, perhaps six months and sometimes longer. This may be negotiable with each individual firm. This avenue is most often appropriate for higher-level positions and not entry-level jobs.

The search firm or agency should do all preliminary screening, which often includes intelligence, personality, aptitude and skills testing, the cost of which should be included in their fee. (Note: These efforts do not test judgment; you must do this yourself.) In addition, you should expect the firm to provide you with at least three good, qualified candidates who meet the requirements you specify when you contract with the firm.

Hire a temporary employee from an agency.

It’s quite common to contract for a temporary employee only to find that the temp is the right person for the job on a permanent basis and may be available. In this case, you should be prepared to pay a fee to the temp agency. This is a reasonably good way to hire clerical and lower-level technical personnel and it keeps your business moving while you’re continuing your search.

Advertise in the right places.

Although we have not found many “right places to advertise,” they may include trade or industry magazines that you’re reasonably sure are read by the candidates you’re seeking. Sometimes the local newspaper can be a good source for candidates, but be prepared to kiss a lot of toads to find the prince. Likewise, some have reported success with national publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the National Employment Weekly, and others report good results by advertising on the internet. Choose the outlets best for you. Remember: If you hire an out-of-town candidate, you will be expected to pay for moving expenses!

The hiring of a candidate assumes that you have carefully and thoroughly considered your own employees as a source. You must not overlook current employee candidates! Study the background and work history of those who might qualify. You may not be aware or have forgotten that one of them has all of the qualities that you are hunting for in the new position.

Many businesses post job openings on the employee bulletin boards. I believe this is a good practice.

The interview process and application forms, in today’s arena, are landmines waiting to be stepped on! There are more employment laws today than ever before and questions you used to be able to ask are now grounds for discrimination lawsuits. If you aren’t familiar with these laws, you must become so–and the sooner the better.

Contact your legal counsel. Most law firms either have an expert on employee relations or can refer you to a source where appropriate literature can be found. One good document is the SBA’s An Equal Opportunity Guide for Small Business Employers.

There are questions you cannot ask during the interview process. Topics to steer clear of include age, disabilities, pregnancy, marital status, religion, sexual preference, race, ancestry, children and prior arrests. Everyone in your organization who may be in a position to conduct an interview must be aware of these and other limitations. We recommend that you develop a list of questions that are acceptable and provide the interviewers with some guidance that is meaningful.

A typical list of questions that can be asked is presented below. Obviously, if you have found a candidate because of your personal knowledge (or the knowledge of a business associate), you will already know the answers to many of the “illegal” questions. Even so, don’t document such knowledge, even if the candidate is for the number-two position in the company. Have as many key people as possible interview the prospect. More opinions will make for a better hiring decision and the other interviewers may uncover something vital that you overlooked.

Interview Questionnaire
1. What do you like most about your present job?
2. What do you like least about your present job?
3. Describe your responsibilities in detail.
4. Describe your relationship with your supervisor.
5. What do you like most about your supervisor?
6. Why are you considering a different job?
7. Why did you leave the job prior to this one?
8. Do you like most of your fellow employees?
9. Are you aware of the responsibilities of the job for which you are a candidate?
10. Do you have any physical limitations that would prevent you from fulfilling those responsibilities?
11. What do you consider your greatest strength as a candidate for this position?
12. What do you consider your greatest challenge as a candidate for this position?
13. What is your present compensation and benefits package?
14. What was your beginning compensation in your job?
15. What specific training have you had that might increase your ability to perform our job?
16. In which school subjects were you most successful?
17. Which subjects in school did you find the most difficult?
18. Can you provide some references for your technical abilities? What are their positions?
19. What do you know about our company that you find appealing?
20. Are working overtime and travel acceptable to you?
21. Are you willing to receive additional training to improve your ability to perform our job?
22. What is the most important factor to consider about becoming an employee of our company? For example: compensation, benefits, working hours, opportunity to progress.
23. What are the least important factors in your consideration?

Employment Preferences

Another aid in hiring is a listing of employment preferences. The answers can be quite enlightening when studied with the responses to interview questions and a review of an application form. The answers to these questions are important regardless of the level of the position that you are seeking to fill.

Here is a sample employment preferences questionnaire:

Rank the factors listed below, on a scale of 1 through 10, with 10 being the most important and 1 being the least important to you in considering a position with our company.
___ 401(k) plan
___ Health and dental insurance
___ Incentive bonus plan
___ Initial base compensation
___ Job security
___ Opportunity for advancement
___ Retirement plan
___ Vacation time
___ Working conditions
___ Working hours

The Employment Application

Once you have identified legitimate candidates for the position, you must have them complete an employment application. Failure to do so may result in your inability to defend your decision to hire or not hire an individual. There are a number of sources available for securing a sample form that complies with all government regulations and laws. Or, you can develop one of your own and have your legal counsel review and revise it to ensure that it is acceptable in the eyes of the law.

How you approach hiring the right person for a job depends upon the level and type of job. It goes without saying that hiring an entry-level person is substantially different than securing the services of a high-level technical person or a number two or three in the chain of command. In every case, however, reference checking is mandatory.

Despite your prior knowledge (assumed) of a key manager-level applicant, you may be surprised at what you find when checking references and credit. Remember: Some of the biggest names in industry (and in our federal government) have been embezzlers, bankrupts, accused of sexual misconduct and harassment, felons, and convicted of lesser crimes. Check out their education, call prior supervisors, check for felony convictions and verify prior employment. In short, do your homework!

Assuming you’ve identified a good candidate and completed all of the homework with positive results, how do you convince him or her to become a part of your company? There are several employment selling points that you should emphasize.

  1. Stress the positive factors that have influenced the candidate to favorably consider the position. They may include your company’s reputation, a positive environment in which to work, an equity opportunity, the possibility of advancement, the prospect of securing improved monetary rewards for outstanding performance, or simply a “great challenge.” Remember that compensation is not the key incentive for people with the “right stuff.”
  2. Do not “buy” their services. Any person who is primarily motivated by an immediate increase in base pay is not looking for the strong, long-term relationship that will contribute to the company’s success. Why wouldn’t he leave your company six months from now for another immediate increase in base pay? This is quite different from a candidate’s desire to be properly rewarded for an outstanding contribution to the company’s objectives. Although you shouldn’t “buy” the candidate, you should be willing to “pay for what you get.” Good people cost more! More about incentive compensation later.
  3. Assure the candidate that his contribution to the company’s objective is meaningful. What is more discouraging than being pursued by a company and, once employed, becoming an unnoticed number on the employee roster?
  4. Consider involving more than one key manager in the hiring process to reinforce the positive factors. It’s fine to discuss prospective employment with the key manager who is involved; however, if other managers are present, it will give the candidate a stronger feeling of being wanted. If you are hiring your number-two man or prospective successor, the group approach is not appropriate, unless that group involves other owners or directors of the company.
  5. Consider an employment contract or offer letter. There may be occasions when a candidate for a high-level management position will be more comfortable seeing all of the conditions of employment in writing. The written document is a permanent record of the covenants between the candidate and the company and lessens the possibility for misunderstanding between the parties.

Getting Acquainted

One of the most common mistakes made by small businesses in the human resources area is believing that a new hire will perform exactly as expected. At the very least, there is an indoctrination phase that should be provided to every new employee. In addition to learning his way around the facility, the new employee must be provided information that will improve his chances of contributing immediately to the company’s performance. This indoctrination phase should consist of the following, at a minimum.

  • Presenting the company’s personnel policies. Although the new employee will have learned a good bit about the company’s personnel policies during the hiring process, he should now be provided a personnel handbook (assuming one is available) that explains the more important policies. These policies should include the hiring process just completed, a definition of salaried and hourly personnel (and their differences), salary administration, incentive bonus plan, profit sharing, retirement plan (if any), pay grade structure, time reporting, working hours, overtime pay, shift premium, pay for attending funerals and jury duty, and performance appraisals. Employee benefits should be explained, including vacation time, health and dental insurance, disability compensation and other benefits, such as awards and company automobiles.
  • Teaching the company’s safety programs. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued standards and regulations designed to protect employees from safety and health hazards. These standards and regulations involve the communication of information about hazardous or toxic materials, infectious materials, respiratory hazards and safety procedures for the operation of equipment.
  • Understanding the company’s business. This may be the most important part of the indoctrination program. The new employee needs to learn about the company’s operations, its objectives and, in broad terms, the plan for achieving the objectives. The new employee should understand product information, competitive position, marketing strategy, manufacturing or service process, and personnel organization.

In some cases, you may have hired a person who has all of the character attributes that you desire but may not be well-versed in some technical area of his responsibility. He may be a good machine operator but not have adequate training in computer numerical controlled (CNC) equipment.

He may be a great salesperson but not understand the required data entry functions required of sales personnel, e.g., use of a point-of-sale device, cash register and so forth. Many times a person with responsibilities in operations may have no background at all in accounting and financial controls. In all of these cases, a training program may be appropriate. There are several ways to provide the needed training.

  1. Vocational technical school. Vo-tech schools are quite good in training people in industrial arts, such as machine tool operation, engineering design, computer-assisted design (CAD), computer-assisted manufacturing (CAM), and similar skills. You or the person who is responsible for human resources matters should be well acquainted with any vo-tech schools in your company’s area and the types of skills for which they offer training.
  2. Business schools, colleges and universities. These institutions offer excellent training and education in traditional areas of marketing, sales, accounting, computer operation, clerical skills and others. If the school is of sufficient size, it will offer these subjects at night, interfering less with the normal workday.
  3. Industry schools and seminars. Depending upon the background of the instructor and his or her teaching skill, industry-sponsored seminars or workshops can be an excellent way to provide “brush-up” training to new employees. The sessions are usually not lengthy and the value of meeting their peers from other companies may be even more valuable than the training itself.
  4. In-house training. Many small companies don’t have the facilities or time to offer formal in-house training. However, one-on-one or on-the-job training, focusing on the critical needs of the new employee, is an excellent way to make sure the needed information is learned. Keep in mind that such training may detract from the efficiency of the trainer but the new hire will learn “our preferred methods,” enabling him to contribute more rapidly to the company’s performance.

Motivation and Involvement

Do you really know what motivates your people? Have you thought about what motivates you? We believe the answer can be expressed in this way:

Something or someone you respect has told you, in some way, “You have done well!”

The “some way” may be a silent nod, a communication from someone you respect, or your own knowledge (based on parameters you know and honor) that you have “done well.” The more clearly this acknowledgment is perceived, the more effective the motivation.

The premise that “nothing succeeds like success” is illustrated by a research study involving ten adults who were given a puzzle to solve. The puzzle was the same for all ten participants. After they were completed, five of the adults were told that they did quite well, getting seven or more correct out of 10 possibilities (which wasn’t true). The other five (who may have done well) were told that they had done poorly, seven out of 10 wrong (which wasn’t true either).

Then all 10 were given another puzzle, the same for each person. The five who’d been told they had done well on the first puzzle really did do well on the second puzzle. The five who’d been told they had done poorly on the first puzzle did poorly on the second puzzle.

Having coached little league baseball (ages 9 to 18) for 16 years, I can absolutely corroborate the results of the puzzle experiment. We created good teams out of players who were average in technical skills by reinforcing the good things that each player accomplished. We pointed out that poor performances were the result of some technical miscue of which the players simply weren’t aware and we were sure that they would do better now that they were aware. This confidence that we expressed in the players was rewarded!

In my own business, we often hired young people who had just graduated from high school and were known to some of our proven employees. Our on-the-job training program was essential to the success of these new recruits; however, positive recognition of their successful accomplishments played an immense role in their becoming valued and competent employees. We dealt with their mistakes as a learning process as long as their attitude remained good and they did not often repeat the same mistakes. Positive reinforcement is a powerful motivator!

Obviously, motivation is not as simple as a pat on the back or a person knowing that they’ve done well. You must understand the normal desires of people relative to their employment, regardless of the level of their responsibility. Most people desire the following:

  • Recognition for their good work
  • Meaningful participation in the company’s efforts
  • A feeling of belonging in a successful organization
  • Opportunities for growth and advancement in their competence and responsibility
  • Security in their job if they perform to expectation
  • Monetary reward for an expected level of performance
  • Benefits that protect them and their families from significant monetary loss

Even top-level management personnel, who are typically self-motivated, desire the same things as those in positions of lesser responsibility. A mutual recognition by their peers for a job well done or a project successfully completed may be sufficient. A brief recognition of their success by the top executive goes even further as a motivator!

Keep Your Employees Happy

There have been many such surveys published, but none that I have found have ever identified what I believe is the most important factor in successful employment:

Enjoying the job . . . enjoying going to work!

How many people do you know that sincerely like to go to work in the morning? How many people do you know who would say they honestly like their job? We all know people who have worked all their lives at jobs that they have not enjoyed. Considering that many men and women spend 35 percent to 50 percent of their waking moments at work, not enjoying that time would be very depressing.

So, how do you make an employee’s work something that he or she enjoys? It is called involvement! Keep your people involved. Consider the following:

  1. Communicate with them. Make them aware of company business that might affect them, either directly or indirectly. Make sure they know about new products or services, give them copies of new company brochures, and tell them about negotiations for new health insurance. They have a need to know.
  2. Reinforce their contributions to the company’s objective. Informal discussions are needed to bring the employees up to date on their role in the business. Annual performance appraisals offer an excellent chance to involve the employees in company affairs in addition to letting them know how effectively they have been working.
  3. Solicit suggestions for positive changes, whether in customer service, new products, manufacturing processes or administration. Often, the employees who are closest to a problem will come up with the best solution. Involve them in problem solving and operational improvements. A lot of good ideas have come from a suggestion box and those ideas should be rewarded with recognition and monetary rewards.
  4. Encourage a sense of belonging, a sense of being a part of a successful effort. This is much like being a part of a winning sports team, an experience that is never forgotten.

Design Your Perfect Business Card

A business card is a very important part of your marketing plan. In fact, it’s the most powerful part. Don’t expect your business card to tell the whole story about your company. Expect it to present a professional image people will remember. A business card will make or break your potential client’s first impression of you. In fact, this little card makes as much of an impression as your personal appearance.

Choose a card that’s appropriate for your business, industry and personal style. If you’re a funeral director, for example, you don’t want to be caught handing out day-glow cards with cartoon figures on them. If you’re a mechanic whose specialty is converting old Beetles into dune buggies, a formal, black-on-white engraved card will probably be dropped into the nearest circular file. When crafting a design, start with the style that best supports the business image you wish to project. To help you get started, here are five different card styles for you to consider:

  • Basic cards. A basic card is usually printed in black ink on plain white or cream stock. This is a good style to choose when utility is all you need. It’s a no-nonsense approach that can appeal to clients and prospects who would not be impressed by fancy design features-the people who want “just the facts, ma’am.” The design is simple, and the information is clear and concise.
  • Picture cards. Having your face on your card-whether it’s a photograph, a drawing or a caricature-helps a contact remember you the next time he or she sees you. Images representing a product or service, or a benefit your business provides, can help you communicate your business better than dozens of words. A splash of color (rather than just black and white) is often helpful on a picture card, too.
  • Tactile cards. Some cards are distinguished not so much by how they look as by how they feel. They may use nonstandard materials, such as metal or wood, or have unusual shapes, edges, folds or embossing. Tactile cards tend to be considerably more expensive than regular cards because they use nonstandard production processes such as die cuts. But for some businesses, this more unusual card may be worth the price.
  • Multipurpose cards. A card can do more than promote your name and business-it can also serve as a discount coupon, an appointment reminder or some other function. It may also provide valuable information that the average person may need. For example, a hotel may include a map on the back of its card for any guests who are walking around the local area. A card of any type can be made multipurpose by adding any of these types of features.
  • Outside-the-box cards. A wildly original, fanciful or extravagant presentation can draw extra attention. Creativity knows no bounds-except the amount of money you wish to spend. Some examples are cards made of chocolate or that folded out into a miniature box to keep small items in.

Now It’s Time to Order

Once you’ve settled on a basic idea for your business card, it’s time to head to the printer. There are four primary considerations when ordering business cards:

  • Weight. Most business cards are printed on 80-pound cover stock.
  • Finish. Of the three available-smooth, linen and laid-the smooth finish is the most popular.
  • Color. Right now, two-color cards predominate. If you’re selecting from a catalog, there are between five and 15 standard colors to choose from. If you have another ink color in mind, your printer can show you a Pantone Matching System book, which includes every shade under the sun.
  • Quantity. It generally pays to print more cards rather than fewer, because the printer’s cost is primarily in the setup.

Design Resource

For more detailed descriptions of the different types of business cards, take a look at It’s in the Cards. In it, Ivan Misner, Candace Bailly and Dan Georgevich review more than 2,000 business cards from 10 countries and select more than 200 examples of some of the best, which are shown throughout the book in full-color.

Though this may sound like obvious advice, it might cost you another trip to the printer if you don’t heed it: Include the essentials. This means your name, title, company name, address, phone number (or numbers, if you want to include your cell), e-mail and Web site. If someone wants to contact you after receiving your card, you sure as heck want them to be able to.

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