How to Run a Virtual Business Successfully

May 24, 2019 by Comerica Bank

How can you use technology to make your business life easier, faster and more efficient? Transforming it from a central place of work into a "virtual" business may just be the answer.

Building a virtual business

Several trends are rapidly driving the business world towards a more efficient and connected future. These days your smartphone can be set up to be your mobile office. You can use it to:

  • Keep organized. For storing the contents of your projects you can use applications like Box and Google Drive.
  • Manage projects. For managing projects there are online tools like Trello, Freedcamp and Wrike.
  • Communicate. For interacting with your staff members more directly, there are business models of popular apps like Skype or Viber.
  • Track expenses. For keeping your accounts in order there are cloud accounting solutions such as Xero and Wave.

Online banking tools can also help your business accelerate its receivables process.

Is your business able to transform into a virtual business? And how will you go about operating it successfully?

Embrace cloud-based services

Cost, reliability and security are just a handful of advantages the cloud can offer. It can also allow your business to become virtual by transforming some important aspects of your office into cloud tools.

Tap into the freelance market

It’s easy to find highly skillful and experienced workers, and to hire them on contract for a certain amount of time or for particular projects. These workers don’t even have to live in the same city or town as you – they could be anywhere around the world, as long as they have access to the internet and your business’s cloud systems.

The idea of social collaboration is at the heart of the growing freelance market, where businesses can harness the specific talent and skills they need to get a job or project done. In a virtual office, you can pay for what you need on an a la carte basis as your business requires it.

Embrace social collaboration and move your business forward to a more efficient place.

Build a responsive website

To avoid falling behind your competitors you need a truly responsive website – one that adapts as your customers embrace new technology, and smaller devices.

Mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets and phablets are now dominating the market. This has huge ramifications for any small or medium business that uses the Internet to sell their goods or services.

Building a business website with a responsive design is easier said than done, but to achieve a design that adapts well to device changes and switches seamlessly between landscape and portrait views, think about:

  • Setting content priorities. When the screen size changes, your business’s visible content will be either reduced or increased. Decide which content will be lost on smaller screens and consider collapsing some content into dropdown navigation.
  • Using a "mobile first" approach. This involves designing around smaller, mobile screens first. You’ll also want to consider where your potential customers are using their devices (like on the train or while walking), so you can help them navigate your site more quickly.
  • The speed of your site. Load speeds can be triggers for consumers to stay on your website or leave and try a competitor’s site. Compress images and use plug-ins to minimize loading delays.

Learn to delegate tasks to your virtual workforce

It’s important to be able to let go of the reins and allow your other staff members to take care of the areas of your business that they specialize in.

For your business to grow, particularly within a virtual workforce environment, try to focus on the aspects of your company that only you can deliver. That could involve you concentrating on generating new business, or simply being the face of your business – the person who instills potential customers with the confidence to buy your goods or services.

Delegating effectively to your virtual staff will help increase efficiency within your business.

Watch out for virtual business pitfalls

Be aware of some of the dangers of moving to a virtual business, such as:

  • The potential loss of efficiency. Measuring productivity can be an issue for some virtual businesses. Carefully choose online tools that will help you measure your team’s performance.
  • Your customers’ negative perceptions. Many potential customers will still assume that a successful business has to have a physical place of work. Be proactive about educating your customers about the merits of why you conduct business virtually.
  • Less camaraderie amongst your staff. Building a connected team environment when your employees work from different locations isn’t easy. However, there are social networking tools that can help make project collaboration (and social work chats) real-time events.
  • Your employees failing to comply with your business’s guidelines, and issues around trust. Establish procedures and best practices to encourage secure, remote work.

Rise above any virtual stigma

You could have potential customers that don’t believe you run a real business and that you won’t be around for very long – all because your business is virtual.

Overcome this by being honest with your customers, sharing your vision and goals and offering references and testimonials from your satisfied customers.

Next steps

This information is provided for general awareness purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal or compliance advice for your business.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. While the information contained within has been compiled from source[s] which are believed to be reliable and accurate, Comerica Bank does not guarantee its accuracy. Consequently, it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter nor be relied upon as such.

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Finding Good Mentors and Business Advice

May 10, 2019 by Comerica Bank

Tapping into experience

You probably get well-intentioned advice from family and friends. However, good business advice spoken from commercial experience is another matter entirely.

That’s not to say it’s hard to find, but discerning the wheat from the chaff in the internet age is sometimes less than straightforward – especially if matters are pressing. This is why, for good times or bad, developing a network of peers or seeking out a business mentor can be a great idea.

It’s important to decide on what you’d like to achieve by the end of the mentoring process, so be clear about your objectives. Brainstorm a list of the attributes and qualities of the ideal mentor for your business.

There are two main types of mentors: paid professionals and fellow small business owners who are happy to share their experiences. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

Government-sponsored mentors

The U.S. Government offers a wide range of free resources and services to support small business owners, and is a great place to start.

  • SCORE Mentors
    This agency provides free counselling, mentoring and advice for small business owners throughout the U.S. Their experienced mentors provide advice on every aspect of business planning, start-up, management and growth. You can search for one, or request one, through the Find A Mentor section of their website.

  • Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs)
    SBDCs provide management assistance, including financial counselling, marketing advice and guidance. Some provide more specialized advice, such as on exporting or manufacturing. You can find out more about them and how to contact one of the 900 service delivery sites through their section on the U.S. Small Business Administration website.

  • Women’s Business Centers
    These focus on women entrepreneurs, designed to assist women in starting and growing small businesses. They seek to ‘level the playing field’ for female entrepreneurs, and help them overcome obstacles they face in the business world. They’re located throughout the U.S., and you can find one near you via their search tool.

  • Veterans Business Outreach Centers
    These agencies provide veterans with business training, counselling and mentoring. They’re located throughout the U.S., and you can find one near you via their search tool.

  • Minority Business Development Agency®️
    MBDA advisors hep minority business owners gain access to capital, contracts, and market research, as well as providing business counselling and mentoring. They have a comprehensive website that outlines their services and resources.

BusinessUSA.gov also has a list of federal counselling programs that are worth checking out.

Finding a business mentor online

For financial or legal advice it would be best to meet face-to-face with your banker, accountant or lawyer, depending on the sort of advice you need. But there are a number of additional resources you can turn to for assistance.

  • MicroMentor®️
    Whether you want to find a mentor or be a mentor, this is one of the top sites from which to get started. The free community of mentors offers advice on all aspects of business management.

  • Entrepreneur Mentor Society (EMS)
    EMS is a non-profit organization that aims to foster the education and development of young and aspiring entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area.

  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce
    This is an organization all small business owners will benefit from by becoming a member. Their networking and programs are ideal opportunities to find a business mentor in your industry. If you haven’t already, it’s a good idea to join today.
  • The more involved you are in your industry, the better you’ll get to know people and tap into their knowledge and experience. That’s why it’s important to get out and network – go to as many industry events, trade shows, seminars and workshops that you can. You’ll find business mentors in people such as:

    Bank managers: It’s important to develop a good relationship with the small business advisor your bank has assigned you. They’re experienced in small business, they’ll take the time to get to know you and your business, and they’ll have great advice in terms of management and growth. They’re well worth taking advantage of.

    Professional consultants: These people aren’t free, but their expertise is well worth paying for. An online search will help you find professional consultants near you.
  • If you maintain your networking contacts, you’ll already be in touch with many business colleagues whose advice you can make use of.

Summary

Business mentoring can give you a fresh perspective on your own business. It can propel your business into profitable areas that you didn’t consider before. Take the first step towards finding a business mentor today – you and your business will benefit greatly in the future.

Next steps

  • Investigate all the options for business mentoring and decide which one is right for you.
  • Talk to our small business advisors about ways to meet other small business owners.

This information is provided for general awareness purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal or compliance advice for your business.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. While the information contained within has been compiled from source[s] which are believed to be reliable and accurate, Comerica Bank does not guarantee its accuracy. Consequently, it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter nor be relied upon as such.

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Safeguarding Your Business Name

May 3, 2019 by Comerica Bank

How to protect your business name

It distinguishes your brand, carries your reputation, and connects with your customers. It’s your business name, and it’s one of the most important things you’ll need to protect.

There are a few steps you can take to register and safeguard your business name, so that a potential competitor can’t start a business with an identical or similar name. After all, you’ll want to avoid your reputation suffering, confusing your customers and losing business.

Choosing a suitable name

There are a number of factors you should consider when choosing an appropriate business name, including:

  • Branding: How your name will come across on a logo, social media or your website.
  • Uniqueness: Choosing an original name is essential.
  • Meaning: Does your name reflect your business philosophy and appeal to your target market? Does it have any unwanted undertones?

You’ll need a business name that has a domain name available and can be registered and protected into the foreseeable future.

Registering a DBA (trade) name

If you’re a sole proprietor or you’re starting a partnership under a name that isn’t your real name, you’ll need to register for a ‘doing business as’ (DBA) trade name. It’s also sometimes referred to as an assumed or fictitious name.

Your DBA name will let your state government know that you’re doing business under a name different to your personal name or the legal name of your business.

How to register a DBA name

You can register your ‘doing business as’ name with your state government or county clerk’s office. Be aware though that not all states require new businesses to register DBA names. Select your state on the SBA’s register with state agencies web page to find out.

As an example, if Tony Johnson sets up a landscaping business in Texas and wants to name it ‘Johnson’s Land Scapes’, he’ll need to register it as a DBA name in Texas.

Using your own personal name

You can use your own name for your business. And if you choose to do so, you can skip the process of registering a DBA name.

Starting a company

If you’re setting up a limited liability company and want to trade under another name that isn’t your company name, you’ll also have to register. For example, your business might be registered as ‘The Mushroom Farm 2016 Pty’ but you plan to promote and trade as ‘Mushroom World.’

Applying for trademark protection

You’ll definitely want to protect your business name from being copied, especially before you begin to build up a loyal customer base. A trademark will protect your logo and the brand name used on your products or services.

To give your business name legal protection, apply for a federally registered trademark by meeting two conditions. Your business name:

  • Has to be distinctive.
  • Can’t create confusion with other registered trademarks.

Trademarks can be registered at state and federal level. To register your trademark at federal level, visit the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website. You can file for a trademark for less than $300.

Make sure you also use the USPTO’s trademark search tool to find out if your proposed name, or something similar, already exists.

Speak to an intellectual property lawyer

It can be difficult to detect whether your chosen trademark might be clashing with another business’s trademark, and the penalties for making this mistake can be heavy. For these reasons, think about talking to an experienced intellectual property (IP) lawyer to ensure you’re covering all the bases.

Safeguarding your online business name

Even if you don’t intend to run a website from day one, it’s important to register for a domain name to make sure your business name is available as an Internet address.

It’s a smart move to brainstorm a domain name that’s:

  • Reflective of what your business does.
  • Keyword heavy.
  • Unique and available.

Be sure to conduct your own checks over the Internet to be certain no one else is already using your preferred address. Test your proposed domain name in the WHOIS database to see if it’s available.

Consider registering multiple domain names (for example, if your business name is Fresh Veg, you might register ‘freshveg.com’, ‘freshveg.info’ and ‘freshveg.us’.

Learn more about how to register a domain name through the SBA’s guide.

Next steps


This information is provided for general awareness purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal or compliance advice for your business.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. While the information contained within has been compiled from source[s] which are believed to be reliable and accurate, Comerica Bank does not guarantee its accuracy. Consequently, it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter nor be relied upon as such.

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First Steps to Exporting

March 5, 2019 by Comerica Bank

Step by step process to increase chances of success

Not only can exporting increase sales and profits, but you’ll boost brand awareness on an international level and open doors for growth in even more markets.

Exporting can help your business grow and prosper. It can also improve your competitiveness by exposing you and your staff to new ideas and demands from overseas customers. Plus, there’s the thrill of knowing that your business can compete against the best in the world.

To export successfully you need to be committed and prioritize planning. Management commitment, effort and attitude are crucial to exporting and building effective relationships. Planning is an essential step before you start any new business venture.

Successful exporters are those who’ve taken the time to learn about the new markets, the risks involved and the guidelines to follow.

Financial feasibility

Undertake a financial analysis of your export opportunity sooner rather than later. Any export opportunity needs to generate enough profit to cover all of your costs and reward you for the risk you’ve taken.

Success doesn’t usually happen immediately so you may have to take a longer-term view of your export plans.

It’s likely that:

  • Exporting will cost more than you thought.
  • Sales and revenue will take longer to generate than you planned.
  • Customers may be slower to place orders than you expected.

To get a clear idea of where you stand financially, conduct a break-even analysis.  It’s also a good idea to run a cash flow and sales forecast, so you understand where you are financially before taking the plunge. Get in contact with Comerica to run these calculations.

Start small

When you begin exporting, it’s wise to focus on one overseas market to start. Once you’ve gained experience in the international marketplace, you can expand your exporting operations, but in the beginning it’s smart to start small.

To identify your target market, gather information on:

  • Your chosen country and market.
  • The relevant regulations and entry requirements into your proposed market.
  • Product liability in your chosen market.
  • Freight considerations and required export documentation.
  • How you’ll be paid for your exported products or services.
  • The risks involved in your chosen target country.

Begin by looking for market opportunities for your products or services where entry to the market will be easier and your potential competitive advantage can be sustained. Then draw up a list of some possible targets.

Protect your intellectual property

Don’t make the mistake of assuming your trademark, patent or industrial design protection in the U.S. also protects you in foreign markets. Intellectual Property (IP) rights are often territorial rights and don’t necessarily carry from country to country.

Your worst-case scenario is entering a marketplace with unique products or services only to find that a competitor starts copying you. If your competitor is large, then the damage will often have been done before you can react, even if you have some intellectual property protection in place.

Potential customers or distributors will want to see that you’ve secured IP protection in their markets as it can:

  • Create significant barriers to competitors.
  • Build credibility and add value.
  • Help prevent other businesses from copying your goods or services.

The World Intellectual Property Office® (WIPO) has produced a range of information covering the various IP issues that you‘ll have to consider when exporting.

Learn about cultural differences

You’re potentially dealing with a different market that has different rules. It’s important to learn about them, not only to avoid giving offense but to determine if your product would be welcomed into that market.

Business practices and cultural customs vary from country to country. To make a good impression and avoid the risk of offending people, always research the cultural norms and accepted business practices before you leave home.

If English isn’t the first language in the country you’re visiting, consider learning some simple greetings and hiring a translator.

You’ll also need to take into account the personalities of the individuals or groups you’re trying to influence. You may need to identify the decision-maker amongst a negotiating group, and in some cultures this may not always be obvious.

Learn about customs, licences, permits, fees and costs

Make sure you're aware of import duties and tariffs, and any quotas that may exist. Most countries are very strict on import documents being accurate and if your paperwork isn't complete or correct, you may face delays or even seizure of your goods.

Check with the customs or border control agency in your export market to find out what documents you have to file, and take the time to fill in all the paperwork properly. 

Given the complexity of export compliance, you might wish to use the services of a professional customs broker or freight forwarder.

The U.S. Government’s Export Portal by the U.S. Department of Commerce® has information about international sales and marketing, finance, logistics, regulations, licenses and possible trade problems.

Maintain your core business

Exporting for the first time is exciting. But make sure your core business doesn’t suffer as a result. Keep your domestic sales strong and ensure you’re not neglecting your customers locally.

  • Ensure that you have staff that are concentrating on the domestic side of the business, while others are concentrating on the new exporting venture.
  • Generate customer feedback locally to confirm that they’re not feeling neglected.
  • Stay in touch with your network of business contacts at home so that you’re updated on what’s happening in your industry.

Summary

It’s unrealistic to go overseas and expect an export order in the first week. It can take years to crack an export market and it will almost certainly take longer than you think, so build this time factor into your exporting budget.

Exporting is a long-term commitment in terms of resources, time, and effort – especially in different cultures. You’ll need persistence, determination and continued enthusiasm, despite possible setbacks.

Next steps


This information is provided for general awareness purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal or compliance advice for your business.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. While the information contained within has been compiled from source[s] which are believed to be reliable and accurate, Comerica Bank does not guarantee its accuracy. Consequently, it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter nor be relied upon as such.

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Benefits of Acquiring Other Businesses

February 28, 2019 by Comerica Bank

If you’re looking impartially and unemotionally at the options ahead when starting your own business, you have to admit buying one already in operation is very appealing. Not only do you get experienced staff and an existing customer base, you also get established premises, a well-known brand and a network of suppliers.

Skipping the start-up stage
Within a few years of starting up, the majority of small businesses will close for various reasons. This means buying a well-established business should give you some assurance that you’re investing in a tried and tested business model that works.

Plus, when you buy a business, you don’t have to deal with start-up paperwork, such as registering for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and meeting any state-level requirements for new businesses.
Other advantages include the following:

  • Existing businesses that survive and prosper typically perfect their operations over time, meaning you should inherit a well-oiled machine with all its processes streamlined and backed up with documentation so you can hit the ground running in a short period of time.
  • Existing staff can provide you with insight into how the business operates and how it could be improved. Staff normally find it easier to speak to a new boss and they may jump at the opportunity to start fresh with an owner.
  • Another bonus of inheriting staff is that you don’t need to recruit and train new staff. You’ll save time, money and energy that can be focused elsewhere in the business.

It’s important to identify early if there are any staff morale issues that need addressing, or if staff are resistant to new ownership and the changes this might bring. Talk to your staff and find out if they’re happy in their roles, if there’s anything that would help them do their jobs better, and what concerns they might have about a new owner coming in.

Showing staff you’re interested in them and open to discussion should help to ease any worries they may have, particularly if they have strong loyalty to the previous owner.

Inheriting systems, customers and image
A good business should come with tried and tested processes that allow daily, weekly, monthly and annual tasks to be carried out as efficiently as possible.

For example:

  • A tourism business should have a simple booking system that includes all the product options.
  • Accommodation businesses should have a housekeeping system that has the premises fresh and sparkling in time for new arrivals and allows necessary repairs or maintenance to be recorded and carried out quickly.

You’ll save time, money and energy by not having to develop these systems yourself. You’ll also be able to improve the systems if needed, with the groundwork having already been done for you.

A major advantage of buying an existing business is that you inherit its market, or customer base – particularly if you buy a franchise or well-known company. This means you don’t need to pour as many hours and dollars into marketing and advertising as you would with a new business.

You can use the business’s existing brand recognition and image to reassure customers what they like about the business won’t change. For example, if you bought a popular inner-city café that catered to office workers putting in long hours, you might use a street-front blackboard to declare, “Under new management, still open from 7am and still staffed by award-winning baristas serving organic coffee”.

Along with a recognized brand and business image, you’ll also inherit a good reputation. This is a key point to be aware of when thinking about buying an existing business. If a business has a history of poor service or selling second-rate products, it might be difficult to convince customers that things will change under your ownership.

Buying peace of mind
While buying an existing business usually involves a greater initial financial outlay than starting a small business and growing it gradually, there are some peace of mind advantages that come with it.

An existing business will likely have long-term contracts with both suppliers and customers locked in. Knowing you’re gaining established relationships, purchasing proven products and will have regular business coming in each month can provide peace of mind and allows you to focus on growth.

By inheriting the previous owner’s business plan, you’ll have a clear goal and path mapped out, giving a sense of direction and organization. This doesn’t mean the business strategy is set in stone, but it gives you a foundation to build on.

A good financial record is almost as important as good sales. If you ever need to apply for credit from new suppliers, having a strong financial track record usually means this will be granted easily. Without the backing of good results and records, you'll need to find other ways to prove your creditworthiness.

Overall, there are many advantages to buying an existing business if you can find one well-priced that interests you. It’s always important to be sure the business you’re considering fits your wants and need. It’s also critical to learn as much as possible about its financial status, history, value, strengths and weaknesses before committing to purchase.


This information is provided for general awareness purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal or compliance advice for your business.

 

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