Monday, January 12, 2015

CES 2015: Technologies That Caught My Eye

I have attended almost every  CES since the early 2000s. I've seen new technologies launched and many drowned out by the excitement ginned up on the latest televisions and wearables. Here are some notable examples of technology that stood out from the crowd:

ReWalk Robotics Personal Exoskeleton 

This revolutionary technology will have life changing impact on so many. It helps paraplegics regain the ability to walk. The FDA cleared the company’s ReWalk Personal System for use at home and in the community.
ReWalk is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion to enable individuals with Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) to stand upright and walk. ReWalk, the only exoskeleton with FDA clearance via clinical studies and extensive performance testing for personal use, is now available throughout the United States.
While attending the ShowStoppers Media preview, I took the video below.

Spin Master Meccanoid G15 KS building kit

Ever since I saw the movie, Short Circuit, I wanted a Johnny 5 robot of my own. It seems that I am a bit closer to my goal. At the Show Stoppers event I met a charming robot from Meccano, and with their kit I can build and program my own pal. Ever have an Erector set? (Erector is the brand for Meccano in the United States). The Meccanoid robot can recognize pre-programmed user-recorded Voice Commands and can be controlled by an Android or iPhone app. 

Toshiba's Communication Android Robot

This definitely takes the prize for the strangest (creepy?) technology. This Android is promoted to be the next big thing in customer service, health care and even as companions. Forgive me if I am not as enthusiastic as the other reporters and reviewers. The goal is to "achieve real heart-warming communication with human-like facial expression." Anybody else see Disney's Hall of the Presidents? Sigh. Read the Toshiba Press Release.

Lenovo VIBE Xtension Selfie Flash 

The end to unflattering selfies. The Selfie flash plugs into the phone's audio port and uses 8 LEDs to illuminate (not flash at) your face. This way you can get the perfect selfie every time. The price is only $29, but Lenovo has (currently) no plans to sell this cutting edge product in the United States. Let's hope they take pity on the selfie fans in the US!

Polaroid Socialmatic Instant Digital Camera 

Polaroid is back, and in a big way, utilizing Zero Ink Printing technology, They understand social media and their new Socialmatic camera is a fully operating touchscreen Android 4.4 Kit Kat system with GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth. The front facing camera is 14 MP  and the rear 2 MP. You can share your pictures online and through its built in printer, instantly print 2" x 3" hard copy for your friends. 

Also, the 2" x 3" picture of me at the top of this post is being printed from the new Polaroid Zip Mobile Printer which connects to mobile devices via Bluetooth or NFC.

Friday, November 14, 2014

How to Reinvent an Ecommerce Business in Less Than 90 Days

When I first started my mentorship with Pitney Bowes Smallbiz Mentorship Contest winner Julie Wiley, I knew it would be a challenge. Here was a woman with years of entrepreneurial experience moving from a full-time job to a home-based, online business.

Julie had been profitably selling on eBay since 2002 on the side, so a jump to a full ecommerce business was not a big stretch. When deciding about her business plan in 2008, she wanted to select a theme that was fairly recession proof. She reasoned that people were always getting married so she named her eBay store I Do Bridal and Gifts.
She also wanted her business to be unique in the marketplace so she widened her product offerings. Tapping her creative side, she began making varied custom items – such as canvas wall décor, glassware and creative bachelorette favors. These items not only build her bottom line, but require less inventory investment. Smart move.
Thinking further into the bridal idea, Julie came upon the thought that remarriage is almost as popular as first-time marriages, so she felt that second-time brides might enjoy a place of their own. She named her new website Second I Do’s.  Despite doing all that seemed right, she was struggling to turn a profit.
We dug in, and together we addressed many of the issues that face small businesses. Here’s what we changed:
  • Mobile–izing the Website. The first thing I did was to check the Second I Do’s website. Although it was chock full of great merchandise, the layout was dated. Although the host told Julie her site was optimized for mobile. It clearly was not. We negotiated for a new template, but the template that was offered up was incredibly basic (but could be seen on mobile). After checking the latest from different providers, we selected a professional Shopify ecommerce website which offered contemporary templates and excellent mobile conversion. This also cut down Julie’s monthly expenses. The new version of the website will be live on Shopify by December 1st.
  • Getting Centered. They are numerous popular ecommerce portals and Julie was trying hard to do a good job on many of them. It’s a lot of work to keep up to date on changes and relisting and listing the same merchandise on many sites. We looked at her monthly sales on each platform and evaluated the ROI. We narrowed her alternative selling platforms to the ones which performed best: eBayEtsy and Artfire.
  • Sharpening Keywords and SEO. When you have a lot of merchandise up for sale online, the mere act of listing many items makes it easy to let item titles get stale. I went over about a hundred of Julie’s eBay items and made suggestions on new titles based on keywords. In ecommerce, keywords are king. They are the SEO for your items for sale. I recommended she be sure to use words that fully describe the items and fill the entire permissible title space. We also went through and freshened up listing descriptions to answer any question a prospective customer might have.
We visited Google Analytics and checked visits, time on site, average pages viewed and bounce rates (how many people leave your site without visiting other pages). We discussed the factors that needed to be improved. Moving her main site to Shopify, with its open layout, should handily increase sales.
  • Cash Flow. Many ecommerce businesses get weighed down in inventory. Unless the inventory is evergreen (and fashion rarely is), it’s time to slash prices and move merchandise. We also looked at monthly costs related to websites, subscriptions and payment providers and compared these to current options. We managed to pare down her monthly output significantly by using many of the lower priced and often free services.
For example, there was a paid store app on the Second I Do’s Facebook page, so we switched from that to Auction Items from eSoftie, a free solution that allowed Julie to send her eBay items to a Facebook store. Setup was simple and took only a few minutes for the entire inventory to populate.
  • Social Media Marketing. We went over the best practices that I lay out in my book Social Media Commerce For Dummies and gave her tips on how to better engage and build a community of customers.
Julie had a nominal presence on most of the social sites. Since social media seems to be everywhere these days, we examined the demographics and decided in which sites Julie would put the most effort – and agreed to focus only on those.  We also set up Google Alerts so she could monitor mentions of her brand and industry on the web and take best advantage of sales opportunities (as well as to derive content for sharing).
Setting up a social media plan can take a while and generally done after the ecommerce platforms are mostly complete. So it might be a while before Julie’s Twitter feed ramps up. I suggested Julie use Buffer to better organize the timing, so as not to send out tweets and posts in rapid fire fashion, leaving room for responding and connecting.
In the three months I worked with Julie, we covered more than I can possibly list here (I can’t give away all her secrets)! In doing so, I was reminded that mentoring is a two-way street; a partnership. When mentoring, you always gain a new point of view on many things. A recent post of Julie’s on Facebook signaled to me that we’d been successful:
“I have never been so busy working from home. Part of it is due to my mentor, Marsha Collier who has given me many “tools” I can use to become a better ecommerce business. Unfortunately, with the new tools comes time spent learning and utilizing them and when you are trying to sell to generate income, it can seem like these tools take away from your selling. I am learning that in order to be successful at selling, I need to have the proper foundation laid. Thanks, Marsha. I know next year my business will be positioned so much better for success!”
Thank you Julie. It was a great experience for me as well!
This article originally appeared on the Pitney Bowes blog

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Advice on 5 Perils and 8 Complexities eCommerce Entrepreneurs Face Every Day

Consulting or mentoring a small business owner isn’t as easy as working with a large business. Most businesses with several employees have already assigned tasks and jobs to different people. An entrepreneur is working on one's own and you're wearing many hats. 

So just I started mentoring the winner of the Pitney Bowes Small Business mentorship contest Julie Wiley owner of I Do Bridal & Gifts. It made me remember just how many points a small business owner needs to touch; I guess I have come to take them for granted. Working with her reminds me of the many tasks that need to be covered on a daily basis. 

Being a soloprenuer requires an “in the trenches” education. Luckily there are lots of books (mine included) that will help you learn new and interesting business methods that may previously have been foreign to you. The learning experience is broad. For an ecommerce business, as an example, the entrepreneur wears all these hats: 
  • Merchandise Buyer. Being on top of industry trends and being able to find merchandise (at the right price) for web sales.
  • Bookkeeper. Even if the business has a bookkeeper, the owner needs to watch financial trends and prepare the numbers for consolidation by a professional.
  • Legal Assistant. Every business needs to file for appropriate licenses and permits from the state and federal governments, plus keep track of DBA and required business filings for your city.
  • Website maintenance. The website is a one-man operation. Entrepreneurs have a picture of what they want and how they want it to look on the web. Reviewing and applying ongoing updates are part of the job, as well as being cognizant of SEO and Google Analytics.
  • Listing items for sale. Aside from the small business commerce website, items need to be listed on e commerce platforms to increase sales, build their brand and eventually build traffic back to their own website. Descriptions need to be well written to encourage a buyer to click the buy button.
  • Photographer. If you’re selling items on the web, you’re going to need good images. This takes a certain amount of equipment - and experience. Snapping off pictures quickly just doesn’t work; there is a lot to keep in mind. Click here for best practices for taking photos for online selling
  • Shipping Department. Shipping is often the most daunting task for a small business (it takes up a full chapter in my books). Learning the ins and outs and updates on regulations is of utmost importance. Many small businesses dilute their bottom line here, through inaccurate and expensive shipping decisions.
  • Chief Marketing Officer. Being close to your business makes the entrepreneur the ultimate expert. Armed with that knowledge, you need to apply social media and promotional best practices to improve sales online. Tread the thin line between marketing and possible spamming.
The tasks above become part of the business’ daily routine. But following a routine over months and maybe years can cause an entrepreneur to get stale. We all often fall into habits that may end up hurting our sales efforts.  Here are five common pitfalls of which to be aware:
  1. If sales start to lag don’t blame the platforms you are selling on right away. Be sure that you are updating your titles regularly using the most popular keywords that describe your item. Better descriptor keywords (just like SEO) can help you rank higher in the site’s search.
  2. Signing up and selling on multiple ecommerce sites because your sales are lagging and you think expanding is a good idea. Take a look at your core listings and see what you can improve before abandoning ship for another shiny site, thereby further weakening your views.
  3. Money can drain slowly, even at $5 a month; subscribing to (and paying for) multiple services that you don’t need or use is a waste. Unsubscribe!
  4. Not checking the competition! Every time you list of relist an item online, be sure to search the platform (and other vendors on the web) to see what the going price is. If others are successfully selling an item that you are not, take a close look at their descriptions, pictures and pricing to see if you can’t be better.
  5. Keep your listings fresh. Add additional photos to your item listings. The more those visitors can see, the more likely they are to click “buy.”
I have been selling online since 1996, and yes, I do get complacent. Much of what I’ve learned is from the ecommerce school of hard knocks. But after almost 20 years of selling online and researching for my books, I’ve got a strong grasp on what it takes to succeed. Keep learning and stay on top of trends, your ecommerce business will bring you a full time - or a side income, your choice.

Someone complained to me on Twitter about selling on eBay, you might find exchange amusing:

Monday, September 08, 2014

5 Tips for Mentor Relationships that Produce Positive Results

When I started my business, there was no Internet - to speak of. That is, unless you could call CompuServe (a modified CB simulator chat service), the Internet. It wasn’t until the early 90s and AOL that we could send email. It was a dark, dismal, lonely time.

At the Los Angeles Daily News, I had developed what I called a “renegade revenue” department of the newspaper, the Special Projects Division. There, I could come up with ideas, present them to management along with a business plan. If it was approved, we could run with it. We did some really off the wall projects and were very profitable. I should have known right then that I was an entrepreneur, but the word never resonated with me.

The Tribune Company was forced to sell my employer due to FCC issues and I had to take my fate in my own hands. I had no close relatives who were business kingpins, so I had to search for someone I trusted. This mentor had to be someone who had no skin in the game, a neutral third party who could give me advice. Luckily, I knew of a c-level newspaper executive whom I had met at conferences that just moved to Southern California .
Tip #1: You never know where your mentors will come from or when you will meet them. When networking, always be at the top of your game.
I didn’t know if he would remember me, or even take my call. I called his new office. He did remember me and I explained my situation. He invited me to lunch to talk - I assumed it was because he didn’t know many people in his new city.
Tip #2: Find someone to mentor you who is not a self-proclaimed expert. Find someone who is (or was)  a success in your field and is respected by others in the industry.
We’ll call him Howard. Howard (surprisingly) knew a lot about the work I had been doing and had great advice. He asked me if I wanted to be ‘another small fish in a big ocean, or a big fish in a small pond.” Message received, I decided to strike out on my own.

My background in renegade marketing would pay off. I presented my ideas to several regional shopping centers and I got five big clients. Now all I had to do was start my business. I had no concept of how to start a business.
Tip #3: Get business structure help from licensed professionals; someone who doesn’t have a disclaimer at the bottom of their website.
I went to the EA (EA is an Enrolled Agent - someone licensed by the IRS as an authorized tax practitioner) who did my personal taxes for references. I walked away with her advice, the name of a good accountant and a lawyer. I also found out that I’d have to get a loan to bankroll my exploits.

Many long, lunches later, I had everything in order. My business was set up legally and I had fulfilled all government requirements. Today the Internet would make things much easier.
Tip #4. Finding good mentors, those you can trust and resonate with is not an easy task. Don’t attach to the first person you meet; find someone who “gets” you.

By the way, I did get that bank loan and paid it back. My business powered on and was featured in Entrepreneur Magazine. You can read the actual article here - which gives my 1986 "Formula for Success." I was so successful that, in 1990, my company was named Small Business of the Year by the California State Assembly.

Because I have never been one not to take notice of cultural trends, I researched and devoured books. As the world changed and my business progressed I went deep into the writings of by my favorite futurist, Faith Popcorn. The turning points for my business and career also came from the many mentors I worked with during my career, especially Clay Felker, founder of New York Magazine; advertising and marketing genius, Tom Culligan and the engaging Peter Glen, author and customer service advocate for whom the Retail Advertising & Marketing Association's annual Peter Glen Award is named.
Tip #5: On your way up, you may be lucky enough to meet people who become “the greats” of the future. Be sure you keep in touch with them.
My business has morphed in different directions over the years and I still look to those who succeeded for advice. The fact that they will still get on the phone humbles me.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Through a relationship with Pitney Bowes Small Business, they have invited me to be a part of their latest initiative the Pitney Bowes Smallbiz Mentorship Contest which starts today and runs through September 22, 2014.

Pitney Bowes is the perfect example of a business born through mentorship and partnership. Arthur Pitney needed a mentor when he worked as a clerk in a wallpaper store and invented a machine to imprint envelopes with postage. Luckily, he found Walter Bowes who sold a letter-cancelling machine to the Postal Service. Together, they invented the postage meter. 

You can win a customized, one-on-one mentorship with me or my colleague Brian Moran, a small business expert dedicated to helping small businesses owners run better businesses. I’ll work closely with you to help tackle the biggest obstacles you are experiencing, or ones that are keeping you from the success you imagined. We’ll  review your business plans together. Then, I’ll make some actionable recommendations, and follow through with you until the end of the contest period. Hopefully providing some useful guidance to help you ignite your business.

To enter and win a mentorship, all you need to do is "like" the Pitney Bowes Small Business Facebook page and post a comment of less than 200 words letting us know us why your company would benefit from a mentorship program. Then, tell your friends and co-workers to like your post. Every Like helps your chances. Visit this page for the complete (and official) Terms and Conditions