Wednesday, April 28, 2010
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Friday, April 23, 2010
There are so many books, blogs, videos, and CD’s out there, trying to tell you the miracle cure for success. There is a plethora of #’d lists to solve all of your problems.
10 Steps to Business Success
19 Little Things You Can Do To Turn Your Business Around
The 432 Facts About Small Business Finance
…..and so on
To be fair, a lot of these have some good tips, most of them based on common sense. I read them all the time, and I’m sure I’ll write a few of my own someday. If you already have a strong foundation, these can be very helpful to get you to the next level. But in the beginning, before you’ve reached a level of success, you have to go back to basics. In the past 20 years, I’ve noticed 1 common trait to all successful businesses, big or small. It’s also the one common factor missing in most of the businesses that don’t make it. It doesn’t involve social media, R&D, or hiring the right people. It’s much simpler than any of these things, but can be so much more difficult to get right. So, what is it?
Positive Cash Flow
Cash flow (also "cashflow") refers to the movement of cash into or out of a business, a project, or a financial product. It is usually measured during a specified, finite period of time. (Here’s how Wikipedia describes it)
It’s a simple concept. You want to have more money coming in than going out. I’m pretty sure a basic handling of this concept occurs the first time you get an allowance as a child. It’s one of those obvious facts of life that get neglected on a regular basis. Others include;
I should start saving for my retirement in my 20’s.
I should eat better, and exercise more.
I should stop using my credit card for take-out, and then only make the minimum payment each month.
Unfortunately, just because it’s obvious, doesn’t mean it’s automatic. In business, it’s really easy to get caught up in the wrong financial statements. When a bank, other lender, or vendor asks for financial statements at the end of a fiscal year (at least where I live), they usually focus on the same 2 statements; the Profit/Loss (aka Income Statement) and the Balance Sheet.
The Profit/Loss statement shows your income, your cost of goods sold, and your other expenses. A good result on this statement means you sold your products or services for more money than it cost you to buy them and support the business. The balance sheet shows your Assets, your Liabilities, and your Equity. Basically, how much you have or will have, whether tangible or not, and how much you owe or will owe. The difference is your equity, positive or negative.
These are very important to judge the success or failure of a business. However, focussing on these exclusively can be disastrous.
How can my Balance Sheet and Profit/Loss look great, but I’m still broke and my business is falling apart?
Let’s think about what these 2 things are telling us.
Profit/Loss: Let’s say you generate $1,000,000 in revenue this year. The products you sold cost you $500,000, and the rest of your expenses (wages, utilities, advertising, etc.) cost you $400,000. You had a 50% gross margin, and $100,000 in net profit. That’s great, and hard to find in the last couple years. Shouldn’t there be $100,000 in my bank account now? Well, no, not usually. What if 1/4 of your customers haven’t paid their account yet. You could have $250,000 in receivables (money people owe you). Maybe the increase in sales made it necessary to buy a bigger building. These 2 expenses don’t show up on a Profit/Loss, they’re over in the Balance Sheet.
Balance Sheet: Let’s say your balance sheet looks great too. You have $1,000,000 in assets, and you only owe $800,000. That’s great! My business is doing so much better than everyone else, right? Well, once again, not necessarily. Again, assets aren’t just cash. They’re made up of cash, receivables, and other items of worth (usually buildings, land, inventory, and vehicles). Receivables are only assets until you realize that the customers aren’t going to pay you. If the economy were to take a turn for the worse, and suddenly 1/2 of the customers who owed you money went bankrupt (sound familiar), then what?
As you see, it’s not hard to look great on paper, but still not have enough money to put gas in the company car. If all of your money is tied up in inventory sitting on a shelf, how do you pay for the furnace when it breaks down?
This is a topic that I could write about for days, and I think I’ll put together something more substantial, perhaps a guide or eBook. The main point is this; you need to have fast, positive cash flow in your business at all times. Just like in your personal finances, you need to have the cash available to you when disaster or opportunity strikes. Here are some examples:
- your store needs some major repairs (i.e.. furnace, plumbing, new windows)
- you ordered an expensive item for a customer, they bail, and the vendor won’t take it back
- your tax return gets reassessed, and you suddenly owe $10,000 more than you thought
- one of your vendors is offering you 35% off your order, if you pay for 3 months worth of product in advance
- a booth just opened up at the trade show you want to attend, but it’s next week and you need to fly 2 of your employees down
- a smaller competitor is struggling, and has decided to sell the business, giving you the opportunity to buy it and open a 2nd location
Ok, fine, I believe you, now what do I do?
Every industry is different, but here are a few tips that apply to a lot of businesses.
Extend credit very carefully:
Some of you eBay sellers and convenient store owners don’t run into this. However, there are still a lot of small businesses that give credit to their customers on some level. This is especially true when your customers tend to be other businesses. Be very careful who you offer terms to. Think of it as giving them cash out of your pocket, or giving them the keys to your car. Would you do that with a stranger?
If you are in an industry where this is a necessity, at least follow this advice.
- Keep the terms for repayment short. Instead of giving them 30, 60, or 90 days to pay you back, offer them 7 or 14 instead. Consider offering discounts for early or pre-payment.
- Have a credit card and drivers license on file.
- If it’s business, get some referrals from their other vendors, and have them fill out a vendor application.
- If it’s an individual, run a credit check, and have them sign a credit agreement.
In the moment, it’s a bit more paperwork, but it will save you a lot of trouble in the future.
Having $1,000,000 of inventory on the shelves looks great on a Balance Sheet, until the products get old, or the fad dies off, and now they’re only worth $500,000. Sure, it’s good to buy in bulk to get the discount, but there’s a fine line you need to walk. If you’ve been in business for a few years, sit down this weekend and look over your sales figures for the past few years. If there are items that sell well, year after year?
- Talk to your vendor, and negotiate a really big discount on buying 3, 6, or even 12 months worth of that stock.
- Try to get them to give you good repayment terms, so you’re paying more during the busy season, and less when business is dead.
- Never buy fads in large volume, unless you can afford to lose big. For every Tickle-Me Elmo, there are a hundred Segways rotting away in warehouses.
Run your business the same way you run your house. If you have $1000 in the bank, would you go out and spend it all on toilet paper, even if you know you’ll use it eventually? Of course not. You’d be broke, and having thousands of rolls of toilet paper on hand wouldn’t do much to appease your impending hunger.
Buy vs.. Lease or Rent:
There are a lot of opinions on this debate. I also know that there are lots of tax implications that come into play, which is a topic that could take up a bookshelf, so let’s avoid that for now. Let’s discuss this as it pertains to cash flow.
Before you make a large asset purchase, like a building or a vehicle, consider your current cash position. If you have to go into significant debt, or spend all of your emergency cash, I would think twice. In the first few years, especially in a micro or small business, financial agility is very important. I understand the value of owning the building. The long term benefits of an asset that goes up in value as the amount you owe goes down is obvious. However, unless your trust fund is paying for this, you’ll want as much money in reserve as possible. Renting and leasing the equipment, vehicles, and building gives you a consistent monthly payment, and frees up your cash and credit for inventory, emergencies, and opportunities. Here are a few quick points:
- Renting an office can save you from repairs and maintenance on a building you own
- Sign shorter leases (if any) if you think you’ll outgrow the office quickly
- Upgrading rental equipment and tools is much easier than selling and buying
Look, if your business has a war chest like Apple or Microsoft, you can approach this much differently. The point of this is to get you from where you are, to where they are. Companies like Apple are powerful because they have that kind of cash to spend if they need to. They can weather a big lawsuit, buy a rival company, or test out crazy product ideas, without worrying too much. However, we’ve seen plenty of times when a big company has fallen because they were too focused on profit margins, but didn’t have any money in the bank when they needed it.
You want every dollar you have to be working as hard for you as possible. Instead of buying extra inventory to store in the back, why not invest some of it, or pay off the company credit card? As a small business owner, you have to spend every dollar as if it were your own, because most of the time, it is.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
I ran across this video this morning, and thought I’d share it. Fear of failure has to be on the top of most peoples list of “Why I Don’t Want to Start My Own Business”. You’re leaving the comfort of a 9-5, regardless of how demoralizing that job may be, and embarking on a terrifying journey.
What if the business fails? What if I can’t afford to pay the bills?
True, that’s a possibility. Are you telling me, after the last year or two, that being an employee is any safer? What about when the risk pays off? Was there any chance that you’d end up successful and independent while sitting in that cubicle? Was your boss going to show up one day, decide he was bored, and just give you the business the run as you saw fit?
Failure is inevitable. If you went through life without ever falling down, you wouldn’t appreciate the times you were standing tall. Since success can sometimes just come down to good fortune, it’s when we struggle that we learn the most about ourselves. The year I spent managing a retail store was the most demoralizing year of my business life. However, it was also the greatest learning experience to date.
Anyway, watch this short clip. The next time you feel like you’ve failed (or are worried that you might), remember that you’re in good company.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Thankfully, I seem to keep running into problems as I try to get this blog off the ground, and streamline my workflow. I say thankfully, because it makes for good blog material.
1. Google Reader
I’ve run into a frustrating snag when it comes to Google Reader. As I mentioned before, one of the steps in my process involves emailing important articles from Google Reader to GMail. Usually, when every couple of emails, it brings up a Captcha to prove that I’m not spamming myself. Usually, I was doing these in small batches, so no big deal. Since then, I’ve been trying to catch up on my work, so I’ve been emailing quite a few articles at a time. Both times Google has temporarily locked me out of my Reader account. It seems they think I’m some bot trying to spam the world with Reader articles. With all of their algorithmic power, you would think they’d notice that it’s me emailing my own GMail account from the same IP address. Unfortunately, not the case.
So, what the heck do I do about this? For a blog of this stature (I get double-digit reads some weeks!!), you would think that Google would do all that it could to appease me. Just in general, there aren’t enough good ways to get content into Google Docs. I really like the service, although it’s still not powerful enough to ditch Office completely. I can’t even get the Chrome extension “Send to Google Docs” to work properly.
I wanted a quick and easy way to send out a tweet every time I posted something on my blog. Sure, I can just as easily do this myself with a quick message and a bit.ly link. The problem is, I’m trying to write more posts in advance, and schedule them in the future. I’m certain that with my bad memory I’ll forget, so it’s just easier to have a service that does this for me.
Twitterfeed was the first result back from a Google search, and seemed to be exactly what I needed. At the time when I signed up, I was still using a .blogspot domain for the blog. It was only a few days later that I switched everything over to my own domain. When I signed up for Twitterfeed, I used my OpenID from Blogger to sign in. When I switched over to the new domain, Twitterfeed kept working fine, so I assumed everything transferred over properly.
I’m having a weird problem. I wanted to change the settings on how it tweeted. It was including a quick snippet from the first line of my post. I wanted to change it to just say “New Blog Post: Post Title bit.ly link”. When I went to sign in, it wasn’t showing my blog, just a form to enter a new blog for the service. I signed in with both OpenID’s, and still nothing, but it was still tweeting after every blog post. I tried entering my blog again, in hopes that this would override any previous settings. Nope. Now it was tweeting twice. I went back into the Blogger dashboard, and revoked any permissions that Twitterfeed had to my account. When I opened up Twitter this morning, it had still tweeted my new post.
It’s not the end of the world. If I hadn’t wanted to tweak the output of the tweet, I wouldn’t have been bothered. Have any of you had this problem before? Any suggestions?
update: I checked this morning, and Twitterfeed managed to post 2 tweets; one with just the title, and another the old way. It looks like I’m going to have to email them and get this fixed.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
I just finished reading yet another great post from Get Rich Slowly, “Spend Based on Who You Are, Not Who You Want to Be”. It goes against a lot of the business wisdom I grew up with, and really made me think.
I was raised on the notion that you should always “dress for the job you want”. That quote always meant more than just clothes. To me it implied that you should always live slightly above your means in order to get the attention of your bosses and peers. There is some wisdom to that. If you want to be CEO, showing up to work in a hoodie and sandals won’t give off the right impression. I recently finished reading a book by Donald Trump “Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life”. A recurring theme throughout was the idea that you should always plan for greatness, always buy the best, never accept second best.
The theory breaks down when you assume more money = more success. Like I said, you don’t show up for a corporate job dressed like you’re in search of a hacky sack circle to join. That doesn’t mean you have to show up in a $5,000 suit either. On the same level, buying a $500 driver doesn’t make you a better golfer, and a $500 stroller doesn’t make you a better parent. There are extremes you want to avoid in either direction. You need a clean suit for the office, a computer capable of running the programs you use, and a car that gets you safely and affordably from point to point. Anything beyond this becomes vanity. Unless you are in a career where image and status directly affect your bottom line, what good are you doing by spending more than you can afford?
There have been many projects I’ve started over the years that turned into nothing more than debt. Do any of these sound familiar?
I really should be better at home improvement, so I should go down and spend hundreds on tools.
Sure, the computer I need NOW is $500, but maybe I want to do video editing someday…..I should by the $2,000 one instead.
If I spend the extra and buy the nice one, it will force me to get out there and work harder.
If any of those lines you fed yourself actually worked, more power to you. They sure didn’t for me. So, what do you think? Should you dress for success, buy the best, regardless of your current state? Or, should you be modest, and buy what you can truly afford NOW, and hope that your hard work and attention to detail (not the cost of your shoes) earn you the respect and success you seek?
Saturday, April 17, 2010
In a recent post, I talked about ways to Archive Your Favourite Articles. If you do a lot of research online, perhaps browsing the news for blog topics, it’s good to have all your information in one spot. Google Reader is my weapon of choice. A large percentage of the news and stories I read come through RSS feeds, and into Google Reader. Until recently, the one exception was Twitter. Although there are plenty of conversations happening on Twitter, there are also a lot of good links to stories I want to read later.
The slow way to tackle this is to click on each link, one by one, and saving those articles individually. I like to try to keep my workflow segregated. Research time is separate from social media time. Otherwise, I’ll log onto Twitter for “just a minute”, and discover that the morning suddenly became 2pm. I recently read a good article that shed some light onto the usefulness of Twitter Favourites. If you spend most of your Twitter time in a 3rd party app like Hootsuite or Tweetie, you may not realize that your favourites have their own RSS feed. Give the article below a read, and find out how to increase your Twitter productivity.
Now, when you come across a potentially good story on Twitter, just add it to your favourites. Once you’ve got that feed added to Google Reader, it’s much easier to go through your favourites when you’re doing the rest of your research.
Twitter Favourites – The Barking Dog http://bit.ly/c0RheV
Friday, April 16, 2010
Here's a quick tour and interview with David Allen. For all the times I"ve read the book, it's nice to actually see him putting his lessons to work. It's about a year old, but GTD is timeless, right? Watching this again reminded me how disorganized I am. A BIG weekly review is in order this weekend.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
When I heard Opera announce that they were submitting their app to the App Store, I was curious to see how this would turn out. Apple is notorious for rejecting apps that duplicate functionality of the iPhone. Google Voice got the boot, tethering apps got the boot, even Wi-Fi hotspot finders got the boot.
Opera was smart. They waited until the App Store debate was starting to turn popular opinion against Apple. Then, they announced very publicly that they were submitting the app. Clearly everyone would know right away if Apple rejected it. Opera has never been shy about standing up for their browser. Despite all this, I’m still surprised Apple let it through. Steve Jobs doesn’t have a history of caring about the opinions of critics. When Steve wants something, he usually gets it.
Well, all the hype aside, let’s get down to the business at hand. Tuesday afternoon I downloaded the app, eager to try it out. I’ve had a mixed relationship with Opera in the past. They were the first browser I ever tried that used mouse gestures. I used to love being able to sit back in my chair with just the mouse, and flip back and forth through sites. The problem was, a lot of the sites that I was flipping through didn’t render properly. Opera suffered from the same problems Firefox and Chrome had in their infancy, not all the sites were coded to work properly in those browsers. Opera seems to be on the frontline with new browser features (mouse gestures, standards compliance, media sharing), but in my opinion they’ve never had the complete package. There’s always been something just annoying enough to stop me from using it full time.
Once again, they’ve done some really great things, but driven me nuts along the way.
Before I even started to test out the speed, I wanted to have my bookmarks transferred over. If I was going to use this browser for longer than the afternoon, I’d like to have my favourites with me. What a disaster! There’s no way to import from Safari, which I get. I’m sure Apple would have squashed the app if it tried to tie into Safari. Ok, fine, I went to Opera’s site for options. Apparently if I install the desktop browser, Opera Link will let me sync my bookmarks with the mobile app. I proceeded to download and install the desktop app. I had to sign up for a My Opera account, and configure the desktop client. I exported my bookmarks from Chrome, and imported them into Opera. Once I was setup with Opera Link, I synced up my bookmarks with the cloud. Great! Now I can see them on the iPhone app.
Not so fast!
Nothing, not a single thing came across. After a quick browse through the forums, I found out that plenty of other people were having the same problem. Apparently bookmark sync isn’t working yet. There is a direct link I can go to, to see my bookmarks. A static page? Why would I want to use that?
The Final Straw
Since the bookmarks issue wasn’t going to resolve itself, I thought I’d just surf around and test the speed. The default home page is Opera’s Speed Dial, a home page with icons of your favourite shortcuts. Facebook was one of the sites, so I thought I’d see how quickly Facebook loaded. I tried to login 3 times before I was told that I was temporarily locked out of my account. It seems that since Opera sends the info back to its own servers, it looked like I was suddenly logging in from the US on a new browser. Facebook apparently thought this was suspicious, and promptly blocked access to my account.
Did it just block me out from Opera? Oh no, that would be far too simple. All of the 3rd party apps that I had authorized to work with Facebook were blocked. I had to go to facebook.com from my laptop. They first asked me to confirm that the activity from the Opera Mini browser was me. After I did that, I had to go into each and every 3rd party app (Hootsuite, TweetDeck, etc.) and re-authorize them with Facebook. What a pain!
A Ray of Hope
At this point I was too frustrated to do much more with the app. I’d just spent a good 20-30 minutes setting up a mobile browser, and then another 30 going through and fixing Facebook. In the interest of not sounding like a bitter anti-Opera nut, I’ll offer a few positives. I browsed through a few other sites after my ordeal.
The browser is, without a doubt, really fast.
Pages loaded much faster than in Safari, and I didn’t have any problem with the content once it was loaded.
I really like the way they handle multiple tabs.
You can flip through, close off, and open up new tabs very easily. I like their method more than the way Safari handles them. Finally, the Speed Dial feature is really nice (you can see it in the picture at the beginning of this post). If I was able to get my bookmarks in, or spent the time to import them all manually, having a handy homepage like this one adds even more speed to Opera’s already quick browsing.
Reality Sets In
This is a 1.0, and should be treated as such. I’m impressed they got the app through. I’m impressed by the speed, the Speed Dial, and the way they handle tabs. I can only hope that future releases address some of these issues. Bookmarks are just too big of a deal for me to ignore. I have no idea what happened with Facebook, and whether or not it would happen again if I went back there in Opera Mini. I didn’t have the time to risk it happening again. I will certainly keep an eye out for updates. If I hear that they have fixed a few things, I may give it another shot. Until that day, I’ll stick with my slower, more reliable Safari, with all my XMarks synced bookmarks at my disposal.
Have you tried out Opera Mini for the iPhone? Let me know what you think, and if you’ve had similar problems.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
As promised, here is the first post in a series “Things I Didn’t Know About My Bookkeeper”.
A bookkeeper can be a huge asset. If you use that resource properly, a bookkeeper can really help your business succeed. The problem is that the position isn’t the same as a customer service rep, a mechanic, or a receptionist. Many times the bookkeeper is off-site, and rarely deals with any of your products or customer directly.
Tip #1 – Don’t assume the bookkeeper knows anything about your industry.
Depending on the size of your business, you may have a bookkeeper sub-contracted off-site, or full time in the office. I have worked in both of these scenarios throughout my career. For example, I worked in an auto repair shop for a couple years in house. When I started, I didn’t know a thing about fixing a car. I have to admit, by the time I left, I didn’t know much more than when I started. Unlike the mechanic or cashier, I wasn’t being trained on the business. My job did not require me to learn the products. At no point did an employee come to me for advice on how to switch out the transmission on an ‘82 Camaro.
Why does this matter?
Especially in the case of an off-site bookkeeper, you can’t assume that they understand the details of your industry. If you give them a bill from a vendor, don’t assume that they’ll know what the items on this bill are for. Are they parts? Were they for a specific job? Are they shop supplies? At some point, I would eventually pick up that Vendor A is where you buy your shop supplies, and Vendor B is where you get your office supplies. However, if Vendor B happened to have a deal on shop supplies, I wouldn’t necessarily notice the difference, especially if the bill has MSG1034 as the line item instead of “ballpoint pens”. Once in a while, this isn’t a big deal. If this happens regularly, you no longer have an accurate picture of where you money is going.
What can I do?
If your vendors match up to a specific expense item perfectly, then maybe write up a quick note in the beginning. A simple spreadsheet that has 2 columns “Vendor Name”, and “Expense Type” would save both parties a lot of time and frustration. That small gesture alone could save hours of billable time every month. If you buy all sorts of items from the same vendor, write a quick note on each bill. Do it as you get them, since going through a stack of 50 receipts in one sitting would be frustrating. If the entire bill is for shop supplies, a quick “SS” written on the bill is perfect. If you want to attribute it to a specific customer, write down their name, or have the vendor make that name be the PO#. If it’s all over the map, a similar note next to each item is better. Of course, we don’t need to insult each other’s intelligence. If the receipt clearly says things like pens and file folders, no need to indicate office supplies. Just make a note next to something that an outsider would find ambiguous. You may know that you bought $200 worth of misc lumber, screws and nails to fix your shop. If you run a construction company, how does the bookkeeper know if it’s for a job (cost of goods) or for the shop (repairs & maintenance). If a few of these happen every month, your financial statements will tell you the wrong story. Suddenly, your profit margins look small, but your repairs are under budget. You end up deciding to increase your prices, instead of realizing that your building is falling apart.
Often getting a bookkeeper is an afterthought. You used to do them yourself, but you just don’t have the time anymore. You find the first name in the phonebook, drop off a box of crumpled up receipts, and hope for the best. Find someone you can trust, and who is easy to reach when you need them. Sit down with them and really describe your business, your goals, and what you expect from them as your bookkeeper. It may take up a full morning, but that time spent in the beginning will save you a lot of frustration in the long run.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
I’m going to start a series based on the title above. Over the years, I have run into all sorts of businesses and clients. However, there are usually a few things that come up every time, regardless of the type of owner, business, or industry. Unless you run a small bookkeeping business, your bookkeeper is probably not looking at your business the same way you are. Sometimes that can result in bottlenecks in the business.
I’m certainly not going to have the same opinion as everyone else, so I welcome input from fellow bookkeepers throughout the series. Some of the aspects and issues I’ll talk about will be minor, but understanding them better could really make a big difference in your small business.
Stay tuned, the first post should be out later this week.
Monday, April 12, 2010
This video is from a TedX talk in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Being that it's from my province makes it extra special, although I wish I could have been there in person. It talks about the importance of teaching your kids about being an entrepreneur, and the traits of an entrepreneur that were described really hit home for me.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
I read a lot of articles online everyday. From blogs I follow in Google Reader, to Twitter and Facebook posts and links, I find tons of material. There are a lot of posts I want to keep along the way. Maybe it’s a list of ways to improve my blog, or a long set of instructions to setup a media center. Whatever it is, I need a way to keep all of them organized and saved, in case I need to refer to them in the future.
There are a lot of different ways to do this, and you really need to find the one that works best for you. I’d like to list a few of those options, and describe the system I’ve recently implemented. Warning Mac Users! I use Windows, so I have no idea what to recommend for OS X in terms of desktop client solutions. I’m sure there are several good ways to do this on a Mac, and I’m also sure they look 20x slicker than anything I’m using. If anyone out there wants to donate a MacBook Pro, I’d be glad to spend the next month researching the topic. Until that UPS driver shows up, I’ll just describe Windows and cloud options.
My Current System
Although I’m pretty sure Google will someday take over the world and use our information against us, they sure have some useful apps. I’ll write a post about my full setup soon. All my RSS feeds go into Google Reader. I have about 60 feeds, which get sorted out into folders, based on their topic. I used to have quite a bit more, but I scaled back some of the non-business feeds, just because it was getting out of hand. This is what it currently looks like.
Ok, so the music blogs aren’t really business related, but I’d give up a leg before I gave up music, so don’t argue with me on that one. Articles I want to save for later get a star. So, for you GTD folks out there, this takes care of collecting and processing the data. All the articles I want to keep for later have been separated, and the rest has been discarded. In the processing stage, I go through the Starred Items, and decide what they are.
If it’s a bit of software I want to check out, I either download it now, or forward the link and bookmark it for later. If it’s a quick tip I think others would find interesting, I’ll tweet it (which I can always reference later). Finally, if it’s a long article I like, I’ll do one of two things. I’ll either write a post about it or just save it for later. Either way, these all get archived.
At the bottom of each post in Reader, there are lots of options. For these purposes, you can email it, or you can send it to a 3rd party. Here’s where I’d like to ask Google for some help. I would like there to be 1 of 2 things added to Reader to make this easier for me.
- Give me an email address just for Google Docs, so I can forward documents directly to Docs, instead of having to upload them.
- Give me a “Send to Docs” option under the Send to menu in Reader.
I’ll let you know if/when Google emails me with an update on this. For now, what I do is email the article to [myemailaddress]+firstname.lastname@example.org. In GMail, all these emails get sent directly to a folder/label called Reading. In GMail, I open up this folder to find all my articles. When I open up the email, I have a perfect copy of the article. On the right side of the screen, I have these links.
Click on Create a document, and the contents of the email (in this case the full article) are turned into a document in Docs. In Docs, I’ve setup folders, similar to in Reader, to keep everything organized. Here’s what that looks like so far.
Judging by my bank account and my diet, there are two folders there that need to get used a bit more often.
Now I’ve got all my articles nicely organized and archived. If I need some inspiration for a new post, or just to reference some instructions in the future, I don’t have to try to remember the keywords to search for, or a clever tag I used 2 months ago. The great thing about Google products is that “folders” aren’t really folders. They’re really just labels, so some of the articles I saved are in multiple “folders”. Something I saved that talks about blogging to make money might go in Blogging/Writing as well as Small Business. It’s also really easy to share with someone else. I can share an individual file, or the entire folder to 1 person or everyone. I’ve tried a lot of ways of doing this. Until Google gets back to me about removing GMail from this equation, this method seems to be the best yet.
This is by now way the only, best, or easiest way to do this. This is just the way I’ve settled on for now. I really like a lot of organization. I also want the apps I used tightly integrated, and available to me anywhere I go. Here’s some other options you could use that handle some or all of the same features as my method.
Evernote: Yes, I know that a lot of you didn’t even wait to finish reading the post before you started shouting this out at me. Evernote is an amazing way to keep track of, well, everything. I use Evernote a lot. I have it on the front page of my iPhone, installed as a desktop app, and installed as a plug-in on Firefox and Chrome. Anytime I find a clip of something, a picture, directions, menus, whatever, I clip them into Evernote. There’s even a Send To Evernote option for Reader. The only reason I don’t use Evernote for this is due to the output of the articles. The articles I save in Docs are documents. I can edit them, print them, add notes to them, and share them. The interface to Docs is also a lot sleeker (probably not the case for Evernote’s Mac client). Plus, I use Evernote for so much, I wanted to have these articles in a clean, distraction free environment. When I’m looking for inspiration for a post, I don’t want to get sidetracked by a screenshot from Plants vs Zombies or the menu from that new Chinese restaurant. That’s just me, you may find it to be the perfect app for you.
Microsoft Outlook/OneNote: Outlook has a really good RSS reader built into to it (at least the last couple versions do). If you like to process all info the way you do emails, then this is a natural way to view your feeds. You can create folders, and drag and drop the articles just the same way you archive your emails. In my opinion, OneNote is by far the most powerful note taking app around. There are even plug-ins for IE, Firefox, and Chrome that let you send info directly to OneNote, just like Evernote. Evernote is great because it’s free, accessible online and on my iPhone, and has a lot of good features. However, if a OneNote iPhone app and online client were to arrive, I’d probably drop Evernote. The tight integration between all of Microsoft’s office apps makes it even easier than Google’s apps to share info between any two programs. Anything I have in Outlook can be easily sent to OneNote, including emails, articles, appointment reminders, and task lists. In this case, the lack of portability is what stops me from using these two apps. I only use the one computer now, but if that changes in the future, or if I want access to the folders on my phone, I’m out of luck.
There are lots of other ways too, but it would take forever to run down all the possible combinations. You could even go really simple and use a word processor and a good folder structure locally. Combine that with Dropbox, and you could have access to them wherever you go.
Do you have a better/different way to handle your favourite articles? Please leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to hear from you, and it may help me refine my current system.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Is it better to spend the time and money to learn additional skills, or should you hone the skills you have, and outsource the rest?
I wrote in a previous post that you can’t be everyone. At some point, you have to stop taking on new tasks, and focus on the core of your business. If you are a good carpenter and a bad web designer, you should train to be a great carpenter, and pay someone to design your site. Being a good carpenter and a good web designer doesn’t do a lot to help you grow your carpentry business.
Does this logic apply to a freelancer?
Not necessarily. You have to find a way to separate yourself from the crowd. With the growth of social media, you are competing against a much bigger group. When you’re a carpenter in Toronto, chances are the carpenter in Calgary isn’t affecting your bottom line. If, however, your business doesn’t require your client to live in the same city, it can be much tougher. The important thing is that the time and money you spend learning a new skill MUST translate into the ability to either charge more for your services, or spend less on your expenses. In Daniel’s case, I think it’s a great idea for him to learn to code. If he’s constantly running into roadblocks, learning to code could really give him the skills to take his business to the next level.
How do I know if it’s worth it?
There’s a quick way to eliminate some of you from this decision. If you are used to billing out at $40/hour, and the job you’re wanting to learn can be outsourced to an expert for $20/hour, stop right now. By the time you’ve become an expert, you’ve spent so much time and money that you’ll never see a return on that investment. If that’s not the case, let’s move on.
There are a lot of ways to look at this, but I’m a numbers guy. Let’s pretend that you are a small business consultant, but you’d like to be able to offer basic web design to your clients. So, you decide to sign up to Lynda.com to learn web design. The premium subscription costs $37.50/month. Please do not stop there to calculate your costs. Let’s also say that you spend an average of 1 hour a day for the next couple months, learning Drupal, Dreamweaver, CSS, or whatever else you decide to learn. That’s 60 hours you spent. If you normally bill out your services at $30/hour, that’s up to $1800 worth of revenue-generating hours you spent, on top of the $75.00. So, after 1 month, you’ve spent $1875.00, and you now have a good basic knowledge of web design.
You will now need to make up this money at a decent mark-up, just like any product you’d buy and then resell. For a really simple calculation, let’s say you mark up your “product” by 100%. This means you need to generate an additional $3750.00 in order for this investment to make sense financially. How long this takes depends on you, and how long until you feel you’ll need to update your training to keep up. Let’s just say 6 months. If you feel like you can add an additional $625/month in revenue over the next 6 months, then this might be a good idea.
Improving yourself is not just a business decision. If you really want to learn how to speak Spanish for more than just business, then go ahead. The question here is whether or not it makes sense for your business. If there are 1000 bloggers in your demographic, but only 5 are bilingual, that’s a great way to stand out, and it’s hard to outsource an understanding of a language. If you are a truck driver, improving your mechanical skills will save you more than just money if you break down in the middle of nowhere. However, choosing to add web design to your list of services doesn’t mean you have to be the one to do it. Paying someone $300 for build you a site that you can charge a client $500 for makes a lot more sense than spending the next few months learning a skill that may or may not pay off. At the end of the day, spreading yourself too thin never works out. Discover what you’re good at, find a small niche you can market to, and focus on making yourself the very best at serving that group of people. Focus your training on honing the skills you already have, and outsource the rest to the other experts who are doing the same.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
“Succeeding is not really a life experience that does that much good. Failing is a much more sobering and enlightening experience.”
Lesson#1 – You Can’t Be Everyone
This first lesson actually changes, depending on the business you’re working in. If you ever read The E-Myth, the author talks about the 3 roles that an entrepreneur plays in the beginning; The Entrepreneur, The Manager, and The Technician. As the business grows, the roles of the manager and the technician slowly get filled by new employees, so that the entrepreneur can focus on growing the business.
My Mistake: I recently left a position as a general manager for a retail store. I held that position for just over a year. It was easily the most difficult job I’ve ever had. On more mornings than I’d like to admit, I tried to find any excuse to stay home and avoid it completely. I never did, and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding years of my life. To clarify, the job itself was a disaster, and it ended horribly. However, I learned more about myself and about small business in general than any school could have taught me. Unfortunately, most of the lessons I learned were from the mistakes I made.
I started out as the bookkeeper at this business. About 3 months before I took over as general manager, I also took over another management role, which included a fair share of “technician” work. By the end of my 3rd year, I was working as all 3 E-Myth roles. At the time, I thought it made the most sense. Times were tough, and hiring more staff didn’t make sense. I was now doing the jobs that were previously done by 3 full time employees. The bookkeeper in me saw the Profit-Loss benefits of losing 2 full time salaries from the Expenses column.
The Lesson: What I have come to learn since then is that this was the worst thing I could have done. I was perfectly competent in each of the jobs I was performing, but I was never able to devote 100% to any one of them. I would show up to work with a stack of paperwork, and would end up in meetings all day. Other days I’d get a call from a vendor, and the information they needed was buried in that stack of paperwork. This wasn’t from a lack of trying. I was in my office at 8:30 every morning, and would still be answering emails or entering invoices on the couch at 9:00 every night.
The business was struggling, and it needed help. I had a lot of great ideas, a couple of them I even implemented along the way. If I had bitten the bullet and hired some extra help, or even delegated some of my jobs to others, it would have made a huge difference. I would have had the time to be The Entrepreneur, the dreamer who thinks up creative ways to get out of a mess. If someone was spending 100% of their time being The Manager, the finances would have been in better shape, and we would have known about upcoming problems well in advance. Finally, if a technician was given the time to get the ground work done, customers would have been better cared for. In reality, by trying to do everything, I ended up accomplishing very little.
The Bottom Line: As a small business owner, you have to know your limits. Maybe you can handle 10 clients on your own, and 15 are asking for your services. Maybe you want to focus on growth, but the paperwork is keeping you too busy. Whatever the reason, you will have an important decision to make. You can either say no to those 5 clients, and just stay small. Or, you can get some help, and start growing the business. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you can have both. You’ll get burned out, and risk losing all 15 clients, not just the 5 you couldn’t really handle.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Instead of giving you a long story about Dropbox, I want to give you a really cool use case that I just discovered recently.
If, for some reason, you haven't heard of Dropbox, please follow the link below to sign up immediately. To summarize, it's a service/app that lets you sync up to 2GB of data on the web and to your Mac/PC/iPhone/Other Mobile Device for free (I pay $10/month for 50GB, which is well worth it). It is the 2nd most useful app I use on a daily basis (next to GMail).
For those of you who use Dropbox, run Windows, and also own an iPhone, I just found out a really great use. A colleague of mine runs a Mac, and does a lot of work in iWork. There are quite a few files that we both need to see on a regular basis. We have a shared folder setup in Dropbox that we both add files to daily. Most of my files are Office documents (.docx, .xlsx, etc), and most of the files he adds are iWork files (.pages, .numbers, etc). I was originally having a hard time opening these files. I found out that the iWork files are really just like zip files, and if you unzip them, you can get a type of preview file that lets you see the contents. This works in a pinch, but the preview file tends to be small and grainy. I finally had a moment of clarity a couple weeks ago. Since my iPhone runs a Mac-based OS, and I have the Dropbox app installed, maybe I can open the files there. Eureka! I can see all of the iWork files perfectly from my iPhone, without any conversion required. It's almost like having a 2 monitor setup when I'm working on my laptop, albeit a very small 2nd screen. If I need to enter an invoice from Pages, I open it up on the iPhone, and enter it into QuickBooks on my laptop.
Considering that Windows is still the dominant OS, and the iPhone is so prevalent, I'm hoping that this tip will help apply to many of you out there. Do you have a great use case for Dropbox? Let me know in the comments!
https://www.dropbox.com/referrals/NTQ1MzExMzk - Sign up from this link to get an extra 250MB free!!
Monday, April 5, 2010
Sunday, April 4, 2010
I'm pretty sure I've been all 3 at different points in my career. In fact, it seems as though I cycle through all 3 in a very specific order.
So, which of these sound the most like you? Take a look at the article, and let me know.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
Thursday, April 1, 2010
A good friend of mine gave me a copy of this book over 5 years ago. Since then, I've read the paperback, and listened to the audiobook several times. There is a timeless quality to the way Michael describes the lessons here, which makes this just as relevant now as it was when I first read it.
The book describes the entrepreneurial myth that everyone working for someone else believes very strongly in. It's the belief that being good at your job automatically means you'd be even better at running your own business. The style of storytelling used here really makes a potentially dry subject come to life, which in turns really makes the lessons stick.
Before you start your own business, you owe it to yourself to read this book. If you're already an entrepreneur, it's never too late to learn some valuable lessons. Follow the links below to pick up your copy of either the audiobook or the dead tree version.
The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Business Don't Work and What to Do About It - Audiobook
The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It - Paperback
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
This week, I’m featuring something on my wishlist. For years we’ve been hearing about the “Paperless Office”. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that computers just found new ways to give us more paper to deal with. One of my big goals this year is to completely digitize my workflow. I work from home, and tend to do this work all over the place. Having all my work scanned and neatly organized in folders on my laptop would save me a huge amount of time and frustration. Unfortunately, my current equipment just takes too long to scan each page, one by one, and then manually organize.
My pick this week is the NeatDesk from The Neat Company.
This is basically your scanner on steroids, without the bad side effects. On top, there’s an automatic feeder that accepts 3 types of documents (up to 50 pages); regular paper, receipts, and business cards. It even scans both sides in a single pass. That alone makes it better than my current all-in-one. After it’s done scanning, the software takes over. All of your documents can be converted to searchable PDF files, and then organized in a digital filing system. Make sure to check out the link to find out all the juicy details.
At $399US, it’s not cheap by any means. However, consider the alternative. With my $200 all-in-one, I have to manually add each page, press Scan, wait, flip the page over, press Scan again. After repeating this step 50 times, I’ve lost a big chunk of my day, and my sanity. With the NeatDesk, I toss 50 pages in the feeder, press a button, and walk away or get back to other work.
If you’re a fan of GTD, I suggest at least placing this on your Someday/Maybe list.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Google has recently made some changes to it's LBC (Local Business Center), which gives you the option to hide your address, and instead list your service area. Check out this article on Small Business Trends, which gives you the full rundown.
Google LBC Change Benefits Home-Based Businesses | Small Business Trends
I’m a small business bookkeeper and consultant. I find small business fascinating, and an amazing challenge. Despite the allure of the big box store, or the fast food chain, there’s nothing like finding that little, locally owned store. You know the one, it’s run by people who actually care about the product or service, and want nothing more than to make sure you leave happy.
I’m also a very proud Canadian. I find that too much of the advice I’m getting online is coming from an American perspective. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a lot of the information just doesn’t apply to me. I wanted to start up this blog, with the goal of sharing some of the stories, tips, and other information that I think fellow Canadian entrepreneurs would find helpful.
Thanks for stopping by.