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Monday, November 30, 2009

Philly Small Business Highlight: Milkcrate Café

It’s become a tricky climate for the corner coffee shop and the independent record store. I-tunes lets people download any individual track they want for their individual earbuds. Starbucks storefronts are popping up across the street from each other with their seasonal decorations and faux-Italian names. What’s a small business-supporting music and macchiato connoisseur to do?

Luckily for us in Northeast Philly, Milkcrate Café meets both needs. Adam Porter, a local DJ (Botany 500), re-opened the doors of the former Canvas Café on E. Girard Avenue this past September.

With La Colombe coffee, Le Bus pastries, and South Street Bagels, Porter shows a lot of local love on the menu. He’s also taken a page from many small business experts by letting the café grow gradually. He wrote that he hopes to eventually include “delicious menu items like fresh soups, salads & sandwiches.”

And then there’s the music. The shop’s walls are lined with only the most aesthetically pleasing album covers. Customers can browse stacks the stacks of albums. Sure, there isn’t the selection of your typical chain mega-store, but there are hidden, obscure gems in every pile. You know what they say about quality, not quantity: Milkcrate observes this to a tee.

The carefully selected music creates a better soundtrack than most coffee shops could dream of. The caffeine cuts down on the snobby atmosphere that can hover over many record stores (High Fidelity, anyone?). Combining two struggling industries into one storefront has created an unexpected, ideal haven for music and coffee lovers alike.

This is just one of many stories where creative Philadelphians have combined their interests to create their dream jobs and dream shops. Know of any other shops that successfully fuse other business models? Know of any other Philly entrepreneurs who have been able to follow their various interests now that they have the freedom to be their own boss? Let us know. We’ll be more than happy to share their stories, too.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Is It Time to Quit Your Day Job?

Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with a former EG client and part-time entrepreneur about the state of her business. She currently has a full-time gig at a non-profit and is working to grow her design business on the side. Like most entrepreneurs, she hopes to transition from a two-job lady to a full-time small business owner, but is waiting for the appropriate time. And therein lies the problem: when is it appropriate to leave your day job for less certain pursuits?

Dollars and Bills

As you might expect, the process begins with some financial analysis. What are your living expenses? Your business expenses? How much money can your business bring in with a full-time commitment? Four to six months of living expenses in savings (a tall order, I know!) offers a nice cushion.

When your assessing expenses, don't forget to consider things provided through employee benefits: health insurance, paid vacation, transportation reimbursements. These are all costs you'll need to cover on your own.

Future Prospects
True, it's hard to grow your business when it's your side gig, but having clients lined up helps ease the transition. Yuwanda Black, small business columnist, reminds readers: "Freelancing is an up and down business. Just because projects are lined up does not mean they will come to fruition. If these are steady clients that almost always come through (ie, they do an annual report every year and you have been doing it for the past two years), then you can "safely" count on the income.

However, be careful that the bulk of your income is not coming from 1-2 clients. Get 6, 7, 8 or more, steady clients — and constantly market to acquire new ones — before you even consider making the move."

The Entrepreneur Mindset
Want to escape the 9-to-5? Looking to be your own boss? If you're struggling with the answers to these questions, small business ownership could be a treacherous road. No one is going to force you to get up in the morning or attend that evening networking event.

Working on your business full-time means depending on your business (and your diligence) for your paycheck. Most people find this thought scary, but only entrepreneurs find it feasible. Does the prospect of total self-employment terrify more than excite? Maybe the full-time employee label suits you. There's no shame in that.

Think about your priorities in life--the importance of free time, a comfortable salary, feelings of self-determination--and assess how full-time business ownership influences these factors. The difficulty of this decision is only alleviated by being honest with yourself.

Too bad we don't all have co-workers like this guy to clarify things.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Entrepreneur Profile: JoAnn Regan of Bella Sera Café

At a month old, Bella Sera Café is Fishtown’s newest coffee shop. Just off the busy Frankford Avenue corridor, it’s a sunny room full of large pastries, friendly locals, cozy décor, tasty organic and vegan foods, and one energetic mother-daughter team. Since the doors opened, new customers have been steadily trickling in.

While we’ve written at length about learning to work with a significant other, we haven’t offered too many tips on working closely with family members. I spoke with Bella Sera’s Joann Regan about her newfound business relationship with her daughter. While she’s quick to emphasize their new time commitment, she offered some hope: “We’re learning each other.” Here are some tips from Regan:

1) Don’t get stuck in the old roles. The other week, Fuchs accidentally cut herself on the job. Regan realized that the mothering role doesn’t always translate into a professional environment. “I realized that I have to not yell at her like she’s my daughter, but be concerned for my co-worker,” she elaborated.

2) Divide the time. Regan admitted that constant proximity can sometimes hurt the relationship. “We’ve learned to split it more so that we’re not always here at the same time.”

3) Use third parties wisely. Often having other people around can prevent the constant proximity from getting tiresome. Regan said that often Fuchs’ boyfriend helps out around the shop, and helps keep their relationship healthy.

4) Look up to good examples. While this is Regan’s and Fuchs’ first business venture together, Regan’s extended family members run many small businesses together. “It’s a big, Italian family,” she laughed, “We have a lot of small, family-run businesses as examples.” There’s no reason to re-invent the wheel with the fragile work/family relationship dynamic. If other people seem to have a good system in place, don’t be hesitant to ask questions, or try to emulate their healthy habits.

Bella Sera has a variety of coffee treats and large, delicious vegan baked goods. With recently extended hours, there’s plenty of time to stop by and see what this spunky mother-daughter team is cooking up.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How to Start Your Business in a Bad Economy

Starting a business when the economy is strong is hard enough, but how do you become an entrepreneur and still make ends meet? It may seem hopeless, but small businesses can actually defy the odds in this type of economic climate. Experts even say that recessions are the best time to start up a new business.

The major secret to starting a business with as little money as possible is to keep start-up costs very low. Furthermore, people who start a business in an economic downturn are one step ahead of reaping the benefits when there finally is an upswing in the market. Here are some tips to keep costs low and be successful even when money is tight:

Keep your day job if you still have it. This suggestion can apply to starting a business no matter what, but it’s even more pertinent when cash flow is more of a problem and you still need money to live off. Knowing that you have money from your day job to pay your living expenses will allow you to feel more confident in becoming your own boss. The risk involved won’t seem as daunting.

Reconsider opening a storefront or office. While it may sound appealing to have a place to work outside of your home, save this until it’s absolutely necessary. Buying or leasing a space may just cost you money you don’t need to be spending quite yet, or at all. Do business out of your home for as long as you can.

Go it alone. Hiring people to help you may seem like something you need to do as a business owner, but you should also hold off on this for as long as possible. Hiring full or part-time staff involves a lot of added costs such as worker’s comp and of course paying them a salary or hourly wage. If you can accomplish it yourself then do so, but if you really need others involved in your business hire contractors or issue 1099s.

No fancy advertising. There are tons of different ways to market and advertise a business, but some of them are a lot more expensive then others. Doing it in a less expensive way, like utilizing social networking and simple word of mouth may be just as good. If you can’t even pitch your business well on your own, then expensive advertising isn’t going to do it for you. Use your limited resources to test yourself on how well you can sell yourself.

Recession Proof Businesses. There are some areas where people will always spend money in no matter what the circumstances. Try if you can to gear your business idea towards one of these fields: food, health care, computer and IT, security, education, and international business. In other words, try to start something that is still seen by consumers as a necessity rather as a luxury.

As always, the most important thing for any new business is to distinguish itself from others by being unique. It’s definitely possible to start a successful business even though it seems that everything is working against you. A slow economy can actually provide for more opportunity. Reducing start-up costs will also help you save money for your own personal expenses. Stay positive, be resourceful, and you might even be in a better position to be your own boss than you would be in an economic boom.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Go Beyond Goal-Setting

Goal setting is like one of those feel-good movies with puppies, montages, and romance. You walk out of there all smiles, feeling like the world is yours for the taking. Aspirations detailed, dates set, numbers pinpointed. Hot dog, we're going to accomplish a lot in the next couple months!

That's how I felt last night while planning for my future business, Root Mass Farm. My partner and I spent our meeting outlining one-month and three-month goals, and we ended the talk feeling good about or work. I think high five's and clinking glasses were involved.

But, for the most part, our celebrations were premature. It's easy to convince yourself that setting goals and getting things done are the same thing--except one involves a list of things to do and the other involves actual results. So, how can we avoid the dangerous cycle of setting goals about setting goals about setting goals like some mind-bending Pink Floyd album cover?

Susan Ward at about.com emphasizes the need for a clear attainment strategy: "Specify the strategy that you will use to work towards accomplishing the goal. 'I will increase sales this month by 25 percent by offering a 10 percent off sale on all inventory and advertising this sale in local media.'... Every goal you set needs to follow this basic goal setting formula: 'I will (specific goal) by (specific actions I will follow to accomplish the goal).'"

In addition to filling in the Point A to Point Z, Ray Silverstein of Entrepreneur recommends noting the time and monetary investment of each baby step. That way, you can better assess the pragmatism of your goals and action steps. Does the amount of time and money your spending on a goal negate the boon of achieving it? If so, it may be back to the drawing board.

Planning is crucial, but all goals must transcend the pencil and paper stage. To do so, Denise O'Berry reminds goal-setters to keep their attainment strategies in plain sight: "But remember, having a plan does not change anything. Working the plan does. The key to successfully working a plan is to keep it front and center. Your plan should drive your daily activities. Bounce everything you do each day against your action plan and decide whether it’s going to help you achieve the goals you’ve established."

And don't forget to prioritize. I do this thing where I check the easy things off my to-do list because it feels good without considering necessity or Big Picture. Ranking your goals in order of importance forces you to tackle the tricky stuff instead of tabling it for later.

Speaking of the big stuff, don't we have some goals to pursue?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Small Business in the News: Keeping it Seasonal (Thankfully)

In 2006, Americans ate five billion pounds of turkey meat. One third of these turkey treats are consumed during the Thanskgiving/Christmas season.

Holidays just have a way of toying with normal business concepts of supply and demand and value. Take cranberries for example. When was the last time you ate them outside of Thanksgiving? Holiday shopping is its own monster. Remember 2007? Nobody was paying $1,500 for a Tickle Me Elmo doll in October.

Here in Philly, some local businesses are keeping their proverbial ears to the ground and capitalizing on holiday trends.

For those who like cooking on Thanksgiving, several local providers are advertising natural, free-range turkeys. Both Greensgrow Farms and the Fair Food Farmstand are anticipating the boom, and encourage customers to pre-order. Their locally supplied birds are in high demand.

Some Philadelphia restaurants are catering to a different market: people who would rather spend their holiday outside the kitchen. Many local restaurants offer special Thanksgiving deals. Old City’s City Tavern celebrates with a local, historical spin, offering their take on a colonial Thanksgiving dinner. Supper on South Street puts on a traditional Thanksgiving meal with entirely local ingredients. Miss Rachel’s Pantry, a vegan caterer, is marketing her delicious, full vegan Thanksgiving meals to vegans who are sick of munching on just side dishes at family meals.

No matter whose table you gather around this Thanksgiving, remember that it’s a good time to let a small business know how thankful you are for their services.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Forget the Red Pen! 3 Editing Tips for Organized Writing

Writing is important for business owners to master – from a business plan, to letters, to applying for a grant or loan, you’ll need to be able to form a clear thought and bring your readers on a journey from start to finish.

For me, the most laborious part of writing isn’t actually getting words on paper; it’s making sure that the words are presented in a way that makes sense. I know that I have a hard time reading a piece of writing that jumps from one idea to the next without a smooth transition, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Forget the red pen! From start to finish, here are 3 not-so-typical tips for organizing your writing that go a long way.

Post-it Association: Before you ever put pen to paper (or cursor to Word), take out a stack of Post-it Notes and start free associating words and ideas that seem relevant to your piece. Write only one word or phrase per Post-it, and once the idea is written, stick it on a big, blank wall in your office or home. Try to use at least half the stack of Post-its, and don’t feel dismayed if you write the same Word (or a synonym) a few times.

If you’re doing this exercise for your business plan, you might start by writing the title of each section you imagine being included to get the ideas flowing. Think you’ll use Facebook and Twitter to market your business? Write each on a separate Post-it. What product will you sell? Why is it special and unique? What attributes does the product or service have? Write it all down, holding nothing back.

Once you’ve exhausted your brainstorms, take a step back, pull up a chair, and look at everything you’ve written. Take it all in, notice the ways the words and phrases interact with each other, and then begin to make groups. If you wrote a lot of words about customer service, put them all together.

From the groups you create, you’ll be able to see patterns in your ideas. From the patterns, create an outline that will help you get from start to finish, and then start writing!    

Using Colors to Identify Categories: Once you’ve finished writing each section included in your outline, print the piece and reread it one time. Don’t make any marks or edits, just read the piece as if you didn’t write it. Pay attention to the places you lose interest, the places you need to read several times to understand, and the places you skim over because they are repetitive.

After your once-through read, you should have an idea of the subjects covered in your piece. If the three main categories are financing, marketing and service delivery, for instance, assign each one a color. Read the piece again, this time armed with different colored highlighters. Highlight – by sentence, not paragraph – ideas related to each category. If a sentence doesn’t fit in one of the categories, don’t highlight it.

Once you’ve finished, look at the distribution of colors. Is there too much of one color, and not enough of another? Are there a lot of sentences that aren’t highlighted? Use these observations for your first round of editing. Through your edits, try to balance out each color section and make sure that every sentence you write is relevant to your topic. If it’s not – you don’t need it!

Cutting Paragraphs: After editing the piece based the color-technique described above, print the piece out again. Reread it again, once-through, without making any marks or edits on the paper. If the piece still feels unorganized, grab a pair of scissors and start cutting. Cut out each paragraph separately; if your paragraphs go between pages, tape them together.

I usually do this step sitting on the floor, with all the paragraphs spread around me. After they’re all cut out, organize them by topic. Once you have them organized, start reading each paragraph individually, and put them together like a puzzle. What paragraph logically follows the previous? What paragraphs don’t logically follow another?

In this editing technique, throw all caution to the wind. Since you’re doing this with a print-out, you won’t lose the original structure completely and can always go back to it. After you’ve finished reorganizing your paragraphs, it’s time to go back to the computer. Copy and paste the paragraphs into a new document based on the order of the cut-outs, and read through again – this time, with a special eye for proper tense, tone and transitions. 

When you think you have a clean, concise and organized final piece, send it off to a friend to read. Make sure you choose someone who will be honest and fair in their evaluation, and try to choose someone that doesn’t know too much about your topic. Use their fresh eyes to identify any remaining problem areas in the piece, and make any edits you need to make the piece polished… and don’t forget to use spell check!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Software Round-Up: Free Photo Editing Software

I've done more color-correcting, cut-and-pasting and photo cropping in the last week than ever before, trying to create what I hope will be the Best Advent Calendar Ever (just don't tell my roommates!). I'll tell ya, it's tedious work. Without the right photo editing software, however, this project would've been pushed from the 'tedious' to the 'almost impossible' zone. Because let's face it: there are some projects MS Paint just can't handle.

Luckily, my design-minded friends pointed me in the direction of some great (and free!) photo editing software. I've had so much fun playing around with these programs that I thought I'd share them with you. After all, DIY business owners and freelancers need editing software as much as the next guy, especially when they're creating their own marketing materials.

Developed by Google, Picasa is one of the most intuitive and easy-to-use programs out there. You can organize photos, correct red-eye, crop and rotate pictures almost without trying. In terms of advanced editing features, however, Picasa is somewhat lacking. It doesn't offer all the fancy bells and whistles more advanced design-heads are looking for. If your main goal is the make a few tweaks to your pictures without having to labor all day to figure out fancy filter settings, this is the program for you.

For me, Picnik represents the best of all worlds. It's free software you can use directly from your web browser (no downloads necessary), it's easy to use and has a slick interface, and it supports the more advanced settings I'm looking for, such as filters and special effects. Want all your photos to look old-timey and sepia-toned? Not a problem. Getting started is easy. Create a user name and password, then you're good to go. Upload your photos from a number of sources for quick editing, then export them to any website you want just as easily.

Similar to Picnik, Pixlr is another free web-based editing program. It offers many of the same basic and advanced features as Picnik, and has a number of devoted followers around the Internet. My two cents? The main place these programs differ is in the ease of uploading and downloading your photos. Compared to some other programs, Pixlr is still a little weak here, and it took me a while to figure out how to make this program do what I wanted.

Photoscape is one of those software options that allows more sophisticated photo editing work, but it doesn't quite approach the number of features offered by Photoshop. Image files are easily converted from one file type to the next, and Photoscape even supports more complicated images such as animated GIFs. Some users have noted that the interface takes a while to get used to, but if you're looking for something more complex than your basic photo retouching and filtering, it's worth taking the time to learn how to use this nifty little program.

Of all the programs listed so far, GIMP is the one most similar to Photoshop. This powerful editing software is a must for the more advanced users among us. Its features are so advanced that I don't even understand them all (what's GNU? Or GEGL integration?). Check out this review if you know how to speak designer-ese and want more information. The friend who turned me on to this program complains that it's a little annoying to use, but if you're talking bang for your buck, GIMP is the program for you. Its features are so complex that some people have taken to calling it the 'Photoshop killer'.

Don't see your favorite editing software on the list? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What's Love Got to Do with It?

Starting and running your own business is tough. Maintaining a romantic relationship also comes with its challenges. So, how do you navigate doing both at the same time? While I’m not personally a business owner at the moment, I’ve come to realize that when you and your significant other have to coordinate opposite schedules, be understanding of each other’s stresses, and still leave time for some romance, things can get a little complicated. How do you strike the right balance between your work and personal life? How do you prioritize things? Here are some common challenges couples may face when one (or both!) are making a venture in entrepreneurship and how to cope with them.

Time Management.
Scheduling is probably the biggest road block you’re going to hit. New entrepreneurs usually map out how much time they need to devote to their business in relation to other aspects of their life. Most of the time any free time they have should be spent working on their business, especially if it’s a new venture. So what if the person you’re dating has a normal 9-5 job, and most of your work is done early in the morning or late at night? Or vice versa? The key is to make the little things count. So maybe you can’t go away for a whole weekend together or have dinner together every single night, but there are other things that you can do to show you care. If your significant other is always up earlier than you, occasionally you could get up and make them coffee. Try to check in with each other throughout the day via email, text message, or phone calls. Doing things on a small-scale will make it easier for you to work on your business and keep up with your personal relationship.

Making Choices.
Your business is probably going to come first a majority of the time, but sometimes that’s not going to be the case and any good entrepreneur will need to realize this. Part of the beauty of being your own boss is being able to schedule things at your discretion. While making your rent and payroll are probably at the top of your list of priorities, keeping your loved one happy also has to be there. When it comes to special events like birthdays or anniversaries step it up and leave your business aside for the night. Try to plan “date nights” where you do something fun to take your mind off your careers and remember why you entered into this dating relationship in the first place. Also, when making plans like these think of it as something you have to do, as if it were something you were doing for your business.

It’s Not All About You.
While your business may be consuming your life, your partner might not want it to consume theirs. Finding someone supportive and understanding of your work needs is definitely important, but you shouldn’t talk their ear off 24/7 about what kind of business insurance you need to get. They have a job too and you should take the time to hear what’s going on with them. When you do share information or problems in your business with your significant other, try to stick with topics that are more personal and things you wouldn’t necessarily discuss with anyone else. Your partner will feel significant to you, engaged in your work, and not like he or she is left in the dark about a huge part of your life.

Give Fair Warning.
Whether you’re dating someone new or you’ve been married for ten years, you’ll need to mention that you’re starting a new business or expanding an existing one. They’ll need to know about how this will affect your personal time and finances. Also, if they’re receptive that means they will likely be supportive throughout the process and you can never have too big a support system when you’re an entrepreneur.

It is definitely easy to let other areas of your life fall to the wayside when you’re a business owner. Keeping a relationship healthy can provide a stronger support system and someone to share in your success. If managed correctly, romantic relationships can make you happier, more energized, and therefore more motivated to do well in your business.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

People Skills: A Touchy Subject

I like to think of myself as an aspiring "people person". I enjoy the company of others, making small talk and even rooms full of strangers. But yet, my best efforts are often burdened by the ghosts of my awkward teen years. I fidget, gaze off into space, say strange things and generally confuse people with whom I'm speaking.

That's where the "aspiring" comes in. Being a "people person" doesn't come naturally, so I have to actively practice the skill sets of human interaction. Every so often, I decide to add a new people skill to my repertoire, usually with mixed results.

In the Spring of '09, I went for the Holy Grail of nonverbal friendliness: the gentle grazes and shoulder pats of tasteful physical contact. The project ultimately ended up next to calligraphy and long-distance biking in my abandoned project graveyard, written off as an impossible dream.

Until my co-worker sent me this video from bnet.

Seeing the warm smiles and friendly exchanges of the dramatizations reminded me of my interest in small talk touch. I'm taking up the mantle again and tackling some other aspects of nonverbal communication, starting with these two posts:

"Listen with Your Eyes: Tips for Understanding Nonverbal Communication"
"Understanding Nonverbal Communication"

But if I'm on the wrong track, I need you to let me know. Remember: this doesn't come naturally. Do you feel warmer toward people who give you a brief pat on the shoulder or a little forearm squeeze? At what point does it become unsettling or a little creepy? For the good of my future acquaintances, lay it out in the comments below.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Small Business in the News: The Wheels Start Turning in the SEPTA Strike

Last Tuesday, a Union strike stopped the SEPTA trains, buses, and trolleys from running. It didn’t stop a few enterprising imaginations from running even further.

The strike affected the morning commutes of thousands of Philadelphians, including about half of the staff here at Empowerment Group. While it was bad for many businesses and inconvenient for many employees, several of Philadelphia’s small bicycle businesses saw a golden opportunity and wasted no time in pouncing.

Local nonprofit, The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, was the first to step up and take action with their “Bike the Strike” campaign. They won immediate visibility and public favor by offering a much-needed service: a bike corral on the Northwest corner of City Hall during business hours. This physical presence led to media sound bites, some supporters in high places, and loads of publicity.

The for-profit small business community found plenty of opportunities as well. Fuji Bikes, a northeast Philadelphia bike shop, got involved with the campaign. They strategically offered discounts on their commuter bikes, marketing aggressively towards people who had always considered biking to work, but needed an extra nudge.

Philadelphia Electric Wheels also got in on the publicity. The Mt. Airy company is Philly’s first store to sell and service electric bicycles. They help commuters in hilly neighborhoods who need the extra push to bike, with their easy-to-recharge, energy efficient electric bicycles. During the strike, they extended their business hours and offered disenchanted SEPTA users $100 discounts on their electric bikes and conversion kits.

While I haven’t seen any of these bicycle stores release sales figures from last week, the Bicycle Coalition was happy to report that bicycling in Center City was up 38% on the second day of the strike.

You know what they say about striking while the iron’s hot. Or while the SEPTA bus engines are cold.

Friday, November 6, 2009

5 Index Cards You Want to See

Last week I stumbled upon a really excellent blog: Indexed. Because no one describes it better than its creator, Jessica Hagy, here's what she has to say about the site: "This is a little project that allows me to make fun of some things and sense of others without resorting to doing actual math.”

The blog has been made into a book and featured all around the web -- and all for good reason. This is the first post I saw:

Isn't that the truth! Too much or too little information leads to confusion in all sorts of situations. After browsing for a few minutes, I realized Indexed has a lot of visual wit and wisdom that business owners can learn from. Without further ado, my top 5 Indexed picks for business owners.

 1. Stress vs. Creativity: Because you'll never get truly creative without a little stress.

2. Business & Artistry: One combination means your business is special and unique. The other? You're just like everyone else. Where do you want to be?

3. Jobs vs. Desires: You'll never land the "perfect" job, but you can create it!

4. Good Design: Give the people what they want! Something pretty, useful and durable. When you find the overlap in your product or service, you've found what sets your business apart.

5. Socialize: I'm guilty of this one, too, but getting out and talking with others can only help your business -- and your personal life!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Create a Productive Home Office in Three Easy Steps!

With SEPTA on strike indefinitely, many Philadelphians (myself included) find themselves facing a new business challenge: working from home. Home, with all its creature comforts and seductive distractions. Sure, there's plenty I like about the 30-second commute and the relaxed dress code. But after five hours spent typing in bed, my back was getting sore and I was fantasizing with increasing frequency about curling up for a nap.

The best parts about working from home (relaxed standards) are also the most dangerous in terms of productivity. How can you ensure your work environment at home keeps you just as focused as that of your office? Here are a few tips to jump-start your home office makeover.

Create a Functional Workstation
This one seems obvious, but it's so easily overlooked. Your bed is not a workstation. Neither is your Lazyboy. Find a comfortable spot to park youself and your computer, preferrably a spot with a desk. Gather the right equipment around you so you don't have to get up and borrow things from other rooms. A few work supplies you might want to consider aggregating at your station are your computer, telephone, some pens and pencils, a stapler, scissors, and paper clips. Anything you would want from a traditional office should be duplicated at home.

Isolate Yourself
We're not talking monastic solitude here, but strive to make your home office distraction-free. That includes visual distractions - no TVs in your workroom, please - as well as sound distractions. If you have other family members at home (including roommates, spouses, kids or pets), let them know that your work space is off limits. Set time boundaries for when you're not to be disturbed. The more regularly you enforce them, the more they'll come to understand and respect your office.

Set Time Boundaries
Working from home gives you tremendous flexibility in terms of time management. You can get up, answer a few emails and calls, take a shower, do more work, then go grocery shopping on your lunch hour or do some light cleaning. It can be great to integrate your chores more comfortably into your working day. But beware of time seepage. Watching your favorite soap over lunch can lead to catching a quick nap can lead to a brief workout can lead to - you get the picture. Take advantage of your new-found flexibility, but make sure you're aware of how your time is spent. Plot out a schedule for the day, then fill in all the tasks you need to do, or check out our round-up of time productivity software and find a program that fits your needs. However you manage your time, make sure to do it consciously and consistently.

With these three tips, you can go a long way towards ensuring you get your work done while also taking full advantage of the comforts of home. And to all the home-based business owners out there, what are some ways you've made your work life more productive? Leave them in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

7 Ways to Be a Great Boss

Owning your own business means being your own boss, but it cab also mean being someone else’s boss as well. Being disliked by your employees is never a good thing. It creates negative energy in your business and employees will not be as motivated to perform well. As the boss, you’re the one who sets the tone for how things are run in your place of business. While there are many overarching themes that connect to good management such as delegation, mutual respect, and listening to employees, here are some smaller steps you can take to ensure a happy working environment.

       1. Communicate the Importance of Each Employee

Sometimes the bottom line is the only thing a boss highlights to their employees. When this happens, workers can’t always see where they fit in and don’t feel important. It’s always great to know that you’re needed and bosses should express this to individual employees, highlighting their specific role in the bigger picture often.

2. Make Yourself Busy

Just because you own the place doesn’t mean you can delegate all major responsibilities to those working for you. Employees won’t respect you if they think you’re slacking off and not pulling the same weight they are. While being your own boss means more flexibility for you, you still need to show your workers you’re right there with them in terms of workload. A common complaint from employees they think they can do their bosses job better. By staying on task with them you’ll avoid this negative attitude.

3. Praise in Public, Criticize in Private

When an employee is successful it’s best to make it known publicly to other employees and customers, but in the reverse situation keep any negative feedback more guarded. Singling out and criticizing a staff member in front of others will only add to the problem most likely and reduce morale.

4. Rewards System

Even if it’s little things, you should develop a few perks that come included with working with you. Even bringing in coffee and bagels for people in the morning sometimes can work. Think of little ways you can reward your employees and also give them things to look forward to.

5. Keep it Friendly

While being authoritative is a given when you’re supervising someone, you also have to keep in mind to maintain a friendly atmosphere. You don’t want your employees dreading seeing you walk through the door. Keep it light and be able to interact with them on personal and business levels. Be sure to maintain a sense of authority though so that your employees will keep taking you seriously.

6. Be Understanding

At some point one of your employees will have a personal conflict with their professional life such as an illness or death in the family. In these situations it’s important to be sensitive. While running your business is your most important goal when an employee has something else going in it definitely isn’t their top priority. It’s best to have a hands-off mentality when it comes to these situations. Let them have time off of work to handle what they need to and be understanding. Your entire staff will remember this and you will definitely gain admiration and respect. Even for smaller things, like adjusting their work schedule to accommodate doctor’s appointments and such it’s important to be flexible with your workers. 

7. Accept Feedback from Employees

It’s in your job description as a boss to give constructive criticism to your subordinates, but to be a great boss you need to listen to others as well. Take the time to have your employees evaluate you and use their feedback to become a better manager. People will appreciate your willingness to listen, your openness, and feel important to the company all at the same time.

Following these tips will help ensure that you are a well-respected and well-received boss. In the end, being a great boss will not only create a strong working environment, but also help your business be successful.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Notes from South Philly: Winning Window Displays

As a resident of South Philadelphia, I can appreciate a good window display. My 19148 brethren adorn their picture windows with personal artifacts, family heirlooms, and all sorts of pets, offering passers-by a glimpse into their hobbies, interests, and values. The empty windows are always a let-down. What, no passions, no statement? Vacant windows, like blank canvasses, add little to the character of a neighborhood.

Store owners citywide should take a page from the South Philly handbook. Your window display provides an opportunity to connect the outside world to your store’s interior and the products contained within. Like the frame of a comic strip, you have a finite space to tell your business story, and you shouldn’t take it for granted. Check out these tips from the experts to best adorn your window to the world.
  1. Play with height and depth. Items placed at different levels grab the attention of short people and tall people, close people and far people. Use all you got and then some to create something that pops.
  2. Be a little wacky, but don’t forget to showcase your products. Your products are the point--don't overshadow them with clamoring colors and unnecessary clutter.
  3. Don’t feel like you have to spend a lot of money to make something compelling. Tiana, our business services manager, appreciates the window at Vintage Connection for its simple and straightforward approach: a couple of impeccably dressed mannequins. You can also hit up your suppliers and wholesalers for some window items and stands.
  4. Keep it seasonal (and be prepared to update it frequently). Developing a seasonal-appropriate display lets customers know that you have their needs accounted for. You routinely change your products and refuse to get stuck in a product rut.
  5. Don’t overlook the impact of lighting. As your choosing your bulbs and positioning your lights, remember that bad lighting will make your products look dull or gray. Bring out the best in your merchandise by effectively combining soft, natural light with well-positioned artificial lights.

Need more inspiration? Business associations and design groups across the city are doing their part to encourage dynamic window displays. The Old City Business Collective hosted Windows Throughout Old City from October 2nd to the 13th as part of DesignWeek Philadelphia. A boon to businesses and passers-by alike, the artist-designed store windows served double duty as public art and small business buzz-makers. Check out some photos here to pick up some tricks of the trade, or view the winner of AIA’s Window Competition in February 2010.

But don't get the wrong idea--you don’t have to be a schooled artist to wow the pedestrians. Small businesses all across the city are using industry norms and personal style to build compelling displays. With a little creativity and a willingness to be bold, your window can tell a story, too. Just don’t forget to stock up on the products you feature!

Have a favorite Philadelphia window display? Tell us about in the comments below.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Small Business in the News: Philadelphia as a Value Proposition

In Empowerment Group’s Entrepreneurship Training Course, we emphasize the importance of having a strong value proposition and highlighting a feature of your business that is both important and unique to set you apart from competitors. In the midst of our My Block, My Business Advertising Competition (New Deadline: November 5!), there’s a lot of talk about Philadelphia pride and what it means to run a truly Philadelphian small business.

Naturally, I’ve been delighted at the news that a New York City small business has been getting publicity from just that: being proudly Philadelphian in a city where this is both unique and important.

In the MLB World Series news hype, a little NYC called “Shorty’s” is getting repeated press. What sets them apart from the typical sports bar? Philadelphia pride. That’s right. They’ve succeeded in getting valuable media attention and large crowds of customers through publicizing their devotion to the City of Brotherly Love.

Shorty’s owner, Evan Stein, is handling the publicity well, by continuing to do the most important thing: repeating their message. Their official website begins, “Shorty’s is proud to offer New Yorkers a true taste of Philadelphia.” They mention the city again five times in two short paragraphs.

Stein’s publicity stunts have been drawing large crowds of Philadelphians currently displaced in NYC and visitors who trekked up the New Jersey turnpike and need a safe haven. MLB.com reported that on a recent game night, he handed out over 700 free cheesesteaks.

As Philadelphians, we can read this stories about Shorty’s and just bask in the glow of brotherly love. But, we can also recognize the valuable takeaway lessons here.

  • Realize what it is that makes your venture unique and important.
  • Keep repeating it!
  • Center your publicity on this. Whether it’s free public relations gigs, or deliberate marketing, keep your message consistent.

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