Small Business: Leveraging the Cloud

“The cloud” is one of the latest buzz words within the business community;but what, exactly, is it, and how can you leverage it for your business?

What is the Cloud?
You and your business are probably already using cloud computing in some form. For example, if you’re using Dropbox or Google Docs, then you are already using cloud-based applications. With cloud computing, you virtually “rent” both software and hardware for as long as you need it, including servers, backup and virtual storage, firewalls, load balancers, and apps like word processing, design, customer relationship systems, payroll, etc.

Cloud computing is just a new name for an old IT technology - virtualization. The technology is just more available nowadays. In the past, you had to work in the IT department to understand how virtualization works and how to use it. Now, cloud service providers are willing to handle all of the logistics - for a simple monthly fee.

Small businesses can use cloud computing for a variety of services and tasks. For example, your server will run out of space, run slow as it gets older or even crash. Servers are expensive to replace. You can use a virtual server to run processes and software for a monthly fee that is often less expensive than buying a new server. You can also use simple backup tools like Mozy or Carbonite, saving your files externally in case of power failures or lost equipment. Or outsource all of your storage to a virtual cloud storage drive that holds both data and files, ensuring that you always have access to your processes, data and files even in the case of a natural disaster, server failure, hacking, etc. Plus, since everything is cloud-based, your cloud applications will seamlessly run on cloud servers without deployment issues.

Benefits of Cloud Computing
The major reasons for the buzz around cloud computing have to do with the business benefits. Here are some reasons to consider the cloud:

Savings: With cloud computing, you’ll eliminate major capital expenditures since you won’t have to buy servers, on-site storage/backup and other infrastructure needed to run an office.
No Maintenance: When you have on-site infrastructure, you have to maintain and upgrade it, which can be extremely expensive and time-consuming. When you rent storage and servers from a provider, they’re responsible for all the maintenance/upgrades.
Control Over Software: In the past, you had to buy the whole software program and licensing even if you only needed it for a month or a project. For example, if you wanted to use Adobe Photoshop, you would have to buy the entire program or even a version of Creative Suite, which is very expensive. Nowadays, Adobe offers a cloud-based version of all its software, allowing you to “subscribe” to the program as long as you need it. Cloud computing allows you to use the software for only as long as you need it. Further with cloud applications, you just log into a website to access your apps, and you don’t have to download anything to your computer.
Access from Anywhere: Need a document when you’re on the road? No need to stress or VPN into your office desktop. Instead, just go online, access your cloud drive, and get everything that you need – no matter where you are in the world.
Scaling: Running out of space on a server or storage unit is a real concern for businesses. Cloud computing provides you with virtually unlimited server capacity and storage space. Scale up or down as needed. No need to buy that extra server just for the busy time of year.
Backup/Recovery: You’ll never lose all of your data because of a lost laptop or a server failure. Back up your data to the cloud, and you can quickly recover any missing files – without any loss of business continuity.

How to Get Started
Finding a good cloud service provider is the hardest part of getting started with the cloud. Do your homework, read reviews, and only sign up with a trusted name in the business. Also, do an inventory of your actual needs, i.e. how many software seats, estimated amount of storage, server capacity, etc. If you work with IT consultants, they can help you with this task.

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Why Startups Are Going Green

5 Ways to Cut Down on Your Business Carbon Footprint
Businesses have begun embracing the “green movement” in recent years. The value of going green is two-fold: it helps the environment, and – more importantly for most businesses – it improves their bottom line.

According to a report by the World Wildlife Fun and Carbon Disclosure Project, if American businesses were to cut greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 3 percent per year, businesses could “save up to $190 billion in 2020 alone or $780 billion over 10 years”.

Green Business
Businesses of all sizes are seeing the benefits of going green. The Aspen Skiing Co. ski resorts decided to start small by changing out the incandescent light bulbs with more energy-efficient ones. This move has saved the company $10,000 each year since 1999. They have gone on to add solar panels and replace old boilers, all saving the company more money and improving overall efficiency.

Search engine giant Google has even embraced the green movement. In 2012, “it invested $200 million in a Texas wind farm, and in 2011, it invested $280 million in a fund that helped now-public Solar City finance more solar installations in America, focusing on the residential and business markets.”

Ideas For Your Startup to Go Green
While larger businesses have actively led the “green” charge, startups can take advantage of the environmental and cost savings that come with reducing your carbon footprint.

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StayFocused Chrome Extension: Helping You Remain Focused Throughout the Day

StayFocused Can Help Users Become More Efficient and Productive
Staying on task is difficult for everyone, whether you’re a small business owner, freelancer or employee. The Internet provides enough distractions to drastically decrease overall productivity. One way to combat this issue is with StayFocused, which is a free app that reduces access to certain sites by limiting the time spent on them.

It’s an add-on for the Chrome web browser, and it tracks the length of time that is spent on distracting sites like Facebook, Huffington Post, eBay and reddit. Once a certain time limit is reached, users will no longer be able to access this site the rest of the day. This time limit ensures that everyone is doing their jobs and increases overall productivity. Most users want to stay on task and get their work done, but oftentimes just forget how long they’ve been on these sites. This app works as a reminder to help users get back on track and avoid going down the rabbit hole of gossip, social media, news or similar sites. Further, it’s also easy to install and very intuitive to use.

How to Get Started
As mentioned, StayFocused reduces the time spent on certain websites. Setting up this extension is quite easy even without a technical background or an IT department, and it works on desktops, laptops and mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. To get started, go to the Chrome Web Store, and click the “Add to Chrome” button. Once installed, there are several options within the setup menu.

StayFocusedcan be accessed from either the app site itself or by clicking on the clock icon on the right-hand side of the screen, next to the address bar. The icon only has a limited number of options, including being able to block a site and immediately accessing the Advanced options, Nuclear Option, Settings and Help/FAQ.

Features and Benefits
The main goal of the app is to keep users from wasting valuable work hours on non-work websites. It provides ways for users to restrict how often they visit or stay on blocked sites. Sites can be blocked by going to the Blocked Sites tab, and adding the URL of the website, or by selecting a site from a list of recommended sites. Users can also create an “Allowed” list of sites. To create a list of blocked or allowed sites, go to either the Blocked Sites or Allowed Sites tab, and add the URL without the http://. To block an entire site, remove the www, or block all domains by using an asterisk, i.e. *.org.

As this is a free extension, there are no advanced admin rights that lock down the settings, meaning that users can change them if they really want to know about the latest celebrity gossip or to continue reading their Facebook newsfeed.. The Require Challenge, however, can be added, which makes it difficult for users to change the settings by making them complete a “challenge” before manipulating anything. Just the thought of having to do the challenge may be enough for users to quit trying and get back to work.

The main features of this extension include being able to sync it between all devices, which is a nice feature, especially in this Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) world. Active days can be set - shutting off the app on the weekends - and active hours, i.e. 8-5, which only blocks sites during business hours. The maximum time allowed on blocked sites will be applied to all blocked sites. The daily reset option reboots the daily allowed time on these restricted sites.

StayFocused also comes with a backup option, which saves the programmed settings by exporting them to a backup file in case the settings get wiped or users change devices. These can be easily imported back in - no need to re-setup devices.

Other possible settings include the Stalker option, which keeps track of the time on sites that are accessed by clicking on a link from a blocked site, i.e. etsy, MySpace, etc. Sites can be blocked for whole periods of time (i.e. 1-2 hours) with the Nuclear Option, and the time when this option takes effect can also be set, i.e.at a certain time of day, right now or when the max time allowed has been exceeded.

StayFocused Limitations
As mentioned, this is a Chrome extension, which means that it only works on Chrome. If users want to get around the blocker, then they can simply use other browsers. Also, it doesn’t appear to work on iPads. In the age of BYOD, this could also be a major limitation from keeping users from accessing blocked sites.

It would be nice too if individual timers could be set up for different sites. Some sites may be required for work, i.e. Facebook and Twitter for freelancers or social media specialists that work in content marketing, or the Huffington post for a research analyst. They may need to scan news feeds for their job, which may take longer than the 10-15 minutes allowed for other blocked sites. StayFocused should have an option to extend the time on these sites, but still limit it to a certain period of time to avoid users from getting sucked into reading the feeds longer than they should.

Overall Thoughts
For anyone who has trouble staying on task and being productive throughout the day, the StayFocused Chrome extension works very well. It’s easy to use and set up. While it has some limitations, overall it’s a great tool to help users remain focused throughout the day.

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What Defines an Entrepreneur?

Merriam-Webster defines an entrepreneur as someone “who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money”. Basically, an entrepreneur is a person who doesn’t mind taking a chance on something new, hoping that the return on investment outweighs the risk and capital expenditures.

While anyone can take a risk, successful entrepreneurs have certain characteristics that help them succeed in crowded and competitive marketplaces and economies.

Common Characteristics of Successful Entrepreneurs

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What is a Virtual Receptionist?

How a Virtual Receptionist Can Help Your Business
The role of business owners is to grow their businesses. This often involves attending current and potential client meetings, working on plans or actually performing the business work for the day. This doesn’t leave much time for doing paperwork and answering phone calls.

Receptionists can easily handle these tasks, but many small businesses don’t have the time to find, hire and train one. Plus, they may not have the capital to pay for a salary and benefits.

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Small Business Trends You Shouldn’t Overlook in 2014

Some small business trends are obvious, but less common trends are equally noteworthy
Each year, news outlets and small business blogs rush to discuss trends for the coming 12 months. The Huffington Post pointed to increased mobile use, continued paid marketing and social marketing, more e-commerce, and a surge in local searches as trends that will see businesses through 2014. Other outlets predict a surge in entrepreneurship and small business that will continue through the year.

These trends are well known and often discussed, but what about the often-overlooked small business trends? There are a few points that people might miss when it comes to small business, but these trends appear to be lasting.

Coworking spaces remain popular
Coworking was all the rage last year, but don’t expect this trend to go away. Nine out of ten coworking spaces are expected to increase their membership this year. It’s clear that there is a continued demand for the benefits that coworking provides, and the popularity of coworking is one trend that should continue throughout 2014.

Coworking has widespread positive feedback amongst freelancers, small business owners, and telecommuters, and is worth looking into.

Email still converts better than social media
Social media has been coveted as the “it” thing to catapult small businesses into the spotlight for quite some time. But is the return on investment as great as it seems?

Nope. When it comes to customer acquisition, a recent survey by McKinsey and Co. shows that email marketing is 40 times more effective than Facebook and Twitter combined.

Small business should still cultivate online relationships with their customers using social media, but the trusted email newsletter is far from dead.

The rise of Software as a Service (SaaS)
Cloud computing is an extremely popular business trend these days, but there’s another level that’s often overlooked: Software as a Service, or SaaS.

SaaS is often called “on-demand software,” and is a software delivery mechanism, where the software and data are hosted on a data center owned by the company providing the software. Salesforce, Basecamp, QuickBooks, and GoToMeeting are all examples of SaaS solutions.

SaaS is great because of it’s low cost and scalability. Now, a one-person firm can compete with larger firms, using the same software and keeping costs in check.

Online reputation management will continue to grow in importance
It’s estimated that 90% of consumers read online reviews before deciding to make a purchase, and that probably doesn’t come as a surprise. Many small businesses actively claim their accounts on review sites, but that’s not enough. Businesses must be proactive to garner the benefits of online reputation management.

Negative reviews on Yelp or Google can severely damage a business, so it’s important that companies observe and respond to negative customer feedback.

Conversely, small businesses should also pay attention to their positive reviews. Customer praise can be displayed on a company’s website and social media accounts, for example.

Trends will come and go every year. Some will be around for the long haul, and others will dwindle. Small business owners should remain aware of the common, newsworthy crazes, but shouldn’t forget to dig deeper to unveil some of the lesser-known business developments that are just as helpful.

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Starting a Business: What Type of Business Entity is Best For You?

You’ve made the decision to start or purchase a business. Now, it’s time to determine what type of business entity will provide you with the best benefits. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages so you may want to connect with an accountant or attorney before deciding. Here’s a review of all the major types of business entities available for your business startup.

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Small Business: Leveraging the Cloud

“The cloud” is one of the latest buzz words within the business community; but what, exactly, is it, and how can you leverage it for your business?

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What is Virtual Office Space?

Entrepreneurs, freelancers and small business owners often don’t have the working capital to afford a dedicated office. In fact, many businesses may only need an actual office space for occasional meetings or presentations. Still to maintain a professional appearance, many of these same businesses still rent office space, despite the costs of the lease and staff overhead.

An alternative to the traditional office space that is rapidly gaining popularity is a virtual office. A relatively new concept, the virtual office space has all the amenities of a regular office – WiFi, landlines, conference rooms and even staff. The difference, however, is that you are renting the whole kit and caboodle for a set price from a virtual office space provider. For a low cost, you can use the space for an hour or two, or on daily or weekly basis.

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10 Common Mistakes Made by Small Businesses

How to Avoid Major New Business Pitfalls

Running a business is a difficult task. You need to grow your business without making large mistakes that could cost you everything. New business owners are notorious for making poor decisions that they could have avoided with a little research and planning.

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